My grocer knows me better than my news provider

By Steve Outing

The other day I received two envelopes of coupons in my (snail-)mail box.

The first included the same kind of untargeted assortment of color-printed discount coupons from local businesses that I’ve received for decades. OK, not entirely untargeted; after all, they were for businesses in my area. But the sender knew nothing about me other than where I live, apparently, so flipping through the 1/4-inch-thick stack of coupons, all but one went immediately to the recycling basket.

The other, smaller package of (single-color) coupons was from one of the grocery stores I shop at: King Soopers. Because the King Soopers chain offers member discount cards, the company’s databases have lots of data on what I’ve bought from its stores; you pretty much have to use the cards (or enter your phone number as an alternate ID at the check-out), or else you pay significantly more by missing all the in-store sale prices.

While King Soopers has been sending my household product-discount coupons (which go beyond the member-card sale prices) for many years, this latest envelope got my attention. Of the dozen coupons in my envelope, every single one was for a grocery item and brand that I routinely buy. The company at last seems to have evolved its system to the point where I could use all those coupons.

If I was of mind to get upset about digital privacy, I might have been freaked out that one of the coupons was for a free pint of Haagen-Daz ice cream. You see, one of my daughters and I are both fond of that company’s Java Chip variety, and I must confess to having purchased quite a few packages. My guess is that the system tracking my purchases noticed that I’d bought a bunch of Haagen-Daz, and rewarded me not just with a discount, but with a coupon for a free pint.

You may feel differently, but I’m not one to freak out about this on privacy grounds. I’ll trade the occasional free item and ongoing discounts for a computer tracking my grocery purchases. In fact, I thought it was pretty darn cool that King Soopers has advanced the technology it uses enough so that I can get, in effect, personalized discount coupons.

Returning to the usual topic of this blog, none of the news brands that I use regularly know me anywhere near as well. Count me as one of those news website readers commonly afflicted with banner-ad blindness. I’m looking for news, so I seldom notice the ads, unless there’s something about them that hits my interest areas.

Google, on the other hand, knows me well, because it reads all my e-mail, as a regular user of its Gmail service. On Gmail, there’s a thin strip of text ads that run on top of the list of messages and above opened e-mails. I notice those ads frequently, because they are placed contextually based on the content of the e-mails in my Gmail inbox. I don’t try to look at them; they just catch my eye when they’re relevant to me. I’m surprised at the number of those Gmail text ads that I’ve clicked on through the years.

Back to news once more, there’s a similarity between when I visit a news website and when I’m using Gmail. In both cases, I’m task oriented: reading news, and reading and responding to e-mail. Yet with Gmail I notice more of the ads because many of them end up targeting me because they’re based on the content of the e-mail I’m reading. With most news sites, the ad targeting is weaker, and the advertising thus less effective in catching my eye.

That King Soopers and Gmail know me better as an individual than do the news providers that I frequent online is a problem for the latter. Sure, some newspaper companies have used targeting technology to track what a website user is reading, and perhaps if they have the data through required online registration, their systems can match that information with my age and location to deliver personally relevant ads on their websites and/or via e-mail or other subscribed services.

But I believe news providers online need to do a much better job or personalization and targeting of advertising. Local newspapers, indeed, might want to look at the grocery industry to pick up some tips. I find it intriguing that the most effective, personalized advertising that I’ve received lately came from a grocer.

Perhaps those member cards are something that news brands should consider more seriously.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

5 Responses to "My grocer knows me better than my news provider"

  1. Christopher Ryan
    Christopher Ryan 7 years ago .Reply

    Hmmm. Grocery store “membership cards” are just ID numbers that match you with every purchase you make, recording everything you buy — including hemorrhoid medicine, alcohol and birth control. The data can be matched with the nutritional content of the food you buy — something that health insurance companies and prospective employers would love to know. Given the relentless pressure from Wall Street to constantly maximize quarterly profits, you can be sure that the grocery stores will eventually be forced to monetize this data, very likely in ways that can seriously bite you. You have no control over this data, no idea if it is accurate or complete, and you have no way of correcting it. I hope that discounted ice cream was worth it… And I hope news organizations will retain some semblance of decency and public service and NOT do this.

  2. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 7 years ago .Reply

    Chris: Personalization programs like this are (or should be) personal choices. I can choose to not use the grocer’s member card and pay more; I can get a grocer card but fill the application out with bogus personal data, using a throwaway free e-mail account. Your employers and insurers knowing the nutritional quality of the food I buy scenario is over the top, from my perspective. The backlash a grocery chain would get if it were caught using data in that way should frighten the marketing executives pondering such a future revenue stream.

    I prefer to view this as glass-half-full (I’ll share some personal information in exchange for tangible benefit); you are taking the glass-half-empty approach. If I took your view (and many people do; no problem with that), I’d have my grocer discount card tied to a fake identity, so I’d still get the benefits.

    With personalized news, the same thing goes.

    Let’s say the NY Times notices that on my account, I’ve been reading a LOT of stories about the Gulf BP oil spill. That knowledge might lead a marketer there to infer that I care about environmental stuff, and the high quantity of that coverage read might lead to a conclusion that I lean toward being an environmentalist. So and its iPad and iPhone apps might show me ads for the Sierra Club, or Toyota Priuses or electric cars.

    Whether I’ve chosen to share my real identity with NYT or a fake one, I’ll still see ads that are pertinent to my personality. And those are the only ads I “see” online; I’ve watched my own behavior over the years and know that I’m truly banner-blind unless there’s some cue that catches my attention. Research bears this out on a larger scale.

  3. Marc Matteo
    Marc Matteo 7 years ago .Reply

    Ok, how ’bout another twist: Why not use the reader’s story interests to tend to pack the desk with more stories that the reader might be interested?

    Say a reader is interested in city council meetings, high school football and, oh I don’t know, stories about bicycling. Subtly, over time there will be more city council stories, high school sports and bicycling bubbling up on the site’s indexes.

    Instead of trying to impress everyone with the same content (and generally failing) a site using the reader’s own habits to transparently adjust content would be far more interesting to a given reader than one that isn’t (lets assume we’re limiting this adjustment to content we actually support, lest all news sites become porn sites).

    Just a thought.

  4. Neil Budde
    Neil Budde 7 years ago .Reply


    DailyMe’s Newstogram platform can do exactly what you describe. It tracks what users read on participating news sites, analyzes the content and recommend additional content and ads from that site likely to be of interest to a user. We’ve seen much higher engagement among users getting personalized recommendations than standard lists of headlines.


  5. […] Steve Outing pointed out a few months ago, supermarkets know a lot more about their customers than newspapers do. It’s firms like Butler’s that are largely responsible for […]

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