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!