I'd like to start out by saying that I fully understand the irony of this post, having just written it.

It's 2020, years since I last wrote a serious blog post for WireSpring, partly due to a business pivot but mostly due to the fact that the nature of business writing just started to feel... obsolete to me. When I first started blogging -- back before that was even a word -- things in the digital signage industry were new, fresh and exciting. Hell, things in the online business writing field were new, fresh and exciting as well. Clever writers developed content not just because it would be indexed by Google and used to provide some minuscule bump in search rankings for whatever terms it was optimized for, as is all to often the case today, but because they felt they could contribute knowledge that wasn't yet widely available or commonly known. Of course they took opportunities to try and establish thought leadership and brand recognition (and the bump in Google search rankings certainly didn't hurt), but the signal-to-noise ratio was pretty high: for every decent, educational post there was a manageable amount of garbage.

Fast forward to today. Social media offers vast echo chambers capable of turning a single modest (and frequently incorrect) thought into a barrage of memes, tweets, reposts and comments. More often than not, long-form content gets developed and then immediately redeveloped into slate of shorter episodes, each with their own clickbait-y title. Meanwhile, outsourcing groups in low-wage countries backfill with new content more focused on word count and search engine optimization than insight, further amplifying the noise. And I have no idea what's going to happen once the AIs get good enough at writing to pass for human.

None of this is news to anyone who visits websites or uses social media. The competition for your attention and personal data is more fierce than ever, even as cheap aggregation services and a never-ending stream of major security breaches makes our information more available and accessible than ever. Which leads me to the true subject of this post: personalized messaging versus the Big Meme™.

A long, long, long time ago I wrote a blog post about the "Uncanny Valley" of messaging -- when personalized marketing starts to feel creepy. It's still a fun (and relevant) read, partly because it contains this silly chart:



In the years since I wrote that, a strange thing happened. Marketing automation services enabled the cheap production of highly personalized messaging. Legit mail marketers and spammers alike no longer had to be limited to simple template variables, and could instead make up complex algorithms to fill whole paragraphs with highly specific text based on troves of personal information sold for pennies a person. And sure enough, these unnaturally crafted tomes did really start taking us toward the uncanny valley of text -- messages that seemed to know much too much about us, but clearly got something fundamentally wrong.

But the thing is, we never really crossed over to the other side of the valley. We may still in the future (see the aforementioned note/fear about AI-generated content), but for now we're firmly stuck on the left. Marketers, seeming to realize this (or, more likely, having realized that response rates started falling off, or that the effort of automating all of that customization just wasn't worth it), seem to have been stepping back from the brink and simplifying their targeting approaches. For various reasons conventional digital signage and OOH media in general never really achieved the same level of hyper-targeted customization, so there's been a shorter distance to fall back. That said, though, the content I've seen running around town certainly looks a bit simpler -- on average -- than it did a few years ago. Whether or not it's being generated by some super-sophisticated algorithm on the back-end I have no idea, but I kinda have my doubts about that.

So what does this have with COVID-19 and the "Great Hunkering Down of 2020?" Simply put, for the first time in... well, maybe ever, there's a thought or idea that virtually every person on Earth has an interest in, and that has allowed marketers to shift their content way over to the left side of that chart. The coronavirus is the biggest, baddest meme around, and it will be top-of-mind for virtually every consumer for not just the next month or two, but long after. Behaviors will change, shopping and travel patterns will upended, and people will have the opportunity to find new and (potentially) better ways to do things that they've been doing for their whole lives, whether it's going to school, going to work, or going to the store. Consequently, every single marketing message in your inbox, on your phone, or shown during your commercial break can safely toss in a hook they know you'll at least make some vague subconscious connection with. I saw two ads on the digital signs in my local pizza place -- one for a personal injury lawyer and one for a real estate broker -- that both managed to shove in a reference to the novel virus in the time it took me to quickly grab my pizza, throw some money on the counter, and run out the back door (I can only hold my breath for so long, after all). These services had absolutely nothing to do with healthcare, social distancing, or any other relevant topic. Yet because they latched on to this giant, global meme -- albeit clumsily -- they're positively going to catch more eyeballs, and I wouldn't be surprised if they converted better as well. We see similar effects on a smaller scale all the time. Superbowl Sunday is preceded by weeks of sales announcements and special deals. The furniture industry has mastered the art of leaping from holiday period to period in an attempt to build excitement around limited time offers that are only limited if you happen to be foolish enough to be shopping during the two or three days between them.

If the spam in my inbox is any judge, marketers are having a hard time figuring out the right ratio of deep customization to Big Meme. At the moment I'd say most are ditching highly targeted content in favor of heavy-handed references to coronavirus. In essence, Big Meme is winning. If that was effective it'd actually be good news for digital signage an OOH, since it's far easier to develop content for public display that doesn't need highly specific targeting to work. Except that nobody's supposed to be going out for the next month, which is pretty bad for an industry that's literally called "out of home." And the persuasive power of this big meme will eventually start to wane -- and there might even be some backlash -- as more people become literally and figuratively exhausted by it.

So that's my take on the status of personalization versus Big Meme marketing, having now witnessed maybe a hundred different messages aimed at the virus-fearing public. Tapping in to the collective social consciousness can make for powerful, memorable content. But timing is everything. If the message is everywhere, viewer fatigue will eventually cancel out any benefit that latching on to the meme would have offered.

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