Jay Small

I am a digital-focused executive living near Nashville, Tennessee. And I’m a guitarist who has played in a few variety bands.
When they’re too much to tweet, sometimes I post thoughts and ideas here.

Digital ads are still not with the program

At Christmastime, a family member gave me a gift card for Sweetwater, an online retailer of musical instruments, pro audio gear and accessories. I browsed the Sweetwater website (while logged in to my long-established account — that’s important), and used the gift card to buy some nice locking tuners as upgrades for a couple of my guitars.

Now, on more web pages than I can count, I’m getting Sweetwater display ads (example screenshot with this post), sometimes two or three of them on a page. That’s not a surprise — Sweetwater runs aggressive marketing programs with data-driven display ads delivered programmatically. I have seen these ads many times before.

But now we’re more than a decade into the world of programmatic ads loaded with dynamic content fed from an ecommerce database. I bought the locking tuners. Sweetwater’s database knows that. So why are the ads I’m seeing plugging the exact locking tuners I bought?

“Happens all the time,” you say. I agree. And I could understand the disconnect if I had browsed tuners on Sweetwater but bought them at, say, Guitar Center or Musician’s Friend. In that case, Sweetwater might have showed me ads for the tuners because it had no record of a purchase but did know, through the magic of behavioral targeting, I looked at tuners somewhere.

In this case, though, Sweetwater’s platforms obviously know these things:

  • I browsed locking tuners on the Sweetwater website.
  • I bought them there.
  • How to reach me via data-driven display ads on other sites, and tailor the data in the ads it shows me based on what I browsed on the Sweetwater site.

Apparently, however, one of the most sophisticated and generally excellent online retailers I know is stuck with a system that does not connect ecommerce purchase data to its behaviorally targeted advertising system. If it could do that, it also could make intelligent guesses when it pours product descriptions into the ads it shows me, like:

“He bought locking tuners. He’s interested in modifying and upgrading his instruments, and might know a little about how to do that. Maybe we can show him parts for other upgrades, like pickups, bridge hardware, or wiring upgrades.”

“He bought locking tuners. Maybe he’d like to browse other guitars that come with them standard.”

“He bought locking tuners. He’s going to have to restring. Maybe he needs to stock up on new strings.”

I know the industry is scrambling to figure out life after cookies, but whatever new connective tissue emerges to keep dynamic-data, behaviorally targeted ads viable in the future, this lack of connective tissue between ecommerce and ad platforms should also be addressed. Otherwise, the long road of disappointing ad experiences still has no off-ramp.

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