Defining Relevance

Sometimes it’s helpful to stop and think critically about the words we use. “Relevance” is a perfect example. It’s broadly used in marketing circles. And it seems straightforward on the surface. But is it really? Let’s take a moment to pause and reflect.

  • A coalition of advertising trade groups recently wrote an open letter complaining about Apple’s decision to build ad-blocking into Safari. One of their arguments was based on relevance: “This new set of changes will further erode advertisers’ ability to reach their customers with relevant advertising.”
  • It’s a common refrain. Relevance is often used as a justification—or even as a synonym—for data collection and ad targeting. For example, when testifying to congress back in May, Mark Zuckerberg argued that “people really don’t like ads that aren’t relevant”.
  • Of course no one wants irrelevant ads. Irrelevance is inherently negative. And—despite Zuck’s claims—so are most people’s views on data-driven targeting. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 63 percent of Americans would like to see “less targeted advertising” in the future. Only 9% said they wanted more.
  • Meanwhile, others argue that advertising doesn’t need data to be relevant. Instead, it should be built on “insight into customer habits, culture, trends, media-usage, markets, competitors and society”.
  • Why the disconnect? Our industry is currently very polarized. Ian Leslie sees it as a battle between “the ad industry, run by people who pride themselves on creativity” and “the ad business, which prides itself on efficiency.” Each side has their own definition of what relevance means. And as a result, the word has been tainted. Its meaning is no longer clearly understood.
  • Our advice: don’t get caught up in the polarization—follow a middle path between the extremes. Mark Ritson sums it up this way:  “The best of both worlds. The long and the short. The targeted and the mass. The top and the bottom. Digital and traditional.”
  • And if you find yourself about to use the word “relevant”, consider something clearer with less baggage attached.
Issue #50
Aug 6, 2018

Further Reading