By Matt Pigott - July 28th, 2015

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Long held to be the holy grail of marketing, certain leading brands can now link customer journeys (and targeted marketing) across the online and offline worlds.

The other day I went to my local supermarket and ended up pondering a half-price deal on a new range of Uncle Ben’s microwaveable food. The smiling Uncle, the alluring images of fluffy rice and quinoa, and the fifty percent deal–combined with my natural aversion to cooking raw rice for twenty minutes–had me reaching for a packet.
At the self-service checkout I scanned my loyalty card, paid with my debit card, and with the day’s hunting and gathering out of the way, drove home. 
It just so happened I was getting ready to write a new article and so, before cooking anything, I sat down at the laptop to do some groundwork, beginning my research the same place any other self-respecting writer would–YouTube.
Now, since Google’s announcement at the beginning of the year that they were going to introduce an ad-free service, I’ve been waiting for the chance to subscribe to it. But, until that service is finally given the go-ahead, my two favourite words will continue to be: Skip Ad. And, as I searched YouTube for useful content, that remained my firm intention. However, when the first ad appeared, my itchy trigger finger first froze then recoiled. There he was again, like the strange ghost of recent shopping past, sporting the same wry smile...Uncle Ben. Was this some kind of joke?
After thirty seconds of paranoically twitching the blinds, wondering if I was being spied on by the marketing police, I sat back down and watched the ad all the way to the end. It was the first out of many hundreds, possibly thousands of beseeching promotions I’d never skipped. And here’s another thing: the ad was two minutes long! 
Jo Wicks (whoever he is) driving around some idyllic English town in a tiny Uncle Ben’s-liveried van rustling up dishes for time-strapped commuters. By the time the ad had finished, I’d forgotten what I’d been searching for in the first place. Because now the question left burning in my mind was, had I just been on the receiving end of a pinpoint precision, targeted ad? Had, in the brief period between purchasing the rice and surfing the net, some coded command been sent from point-of-sale through a series of servers that had fused my offline and online behaviours together for marketing purposes? 

Guiding experience through collaboration between tech giants

Half-an-hour of research later it transpired that I had probably been ‘hashed’ which, put another way, means that my personal data had most likely been driven through the mangle of two colluding forces: Silicon Valley tech giant Oracle on the one hand and Google, which owns YouTube, on the other. The result? Highly targeted advertisements based on actual consumer decisions rather than demographic speculations.
On a personal level, one thing I became acutely aware of was that, by virtue of not skipping the ad, some sort of brand attachment had taken place in my mind. Being marketed to twice within a short space of time had reinforced my purchasing decision, played on my ego, and made disregarding the ad by skipping it tantamount to a betrayal, not so much of Uncle Ben’s, but of myself’. 
The YouTube stats on this particular Uncle Ben’s ad are impressive–more than a million views in just three weeks. Which means there must be plenty of other people out there who have been equally blindsided by this same apparent coincidence. One thing’s for sure: it’s the type of marketing that doesn’t fit neatly into the ‘demand generation’ or ‘direct response’ categories; on this occasion, the targeted ad appeared after the purchase had been made. So my next question was, would this ad pop up on YouTube again? You bet! Along with plenty of ads for Dolmio–also owned, it turns out, by the food giant Mars. 
Closing the loop between online advertising and offline sales, a potential $200billion market, has long been regarded as the Holy Grail by big online platforms keen to demonstrate, to advertisers, a profitable link between what consumers do online and what they buy offline. Pay per click, initially seen as the marketeer’s silver bullet, in that customer activity was measurable, fell down because a click didn’t necessarily lead to a sale unless the purchase was made directly online. Realising that the majority of people were using the internet as a research tool and then going into stores and buying products they’d seen meant that, although online advertising might indeed be working, it couldn’t be proved. 
Since 2012 Google has striven to close this gap through Google Wallet and Offers, but new partnerships are proving more effective. In the last few years Facebook and Twitter have partnered with Datalogix and it appears that these giant digital publishers finally have at least one finger on the stem of the Holy Grail.  
The process of hashing is when major media publishers crosscheck consumers’ online platform behaviours with their offline retail activities using anonymized data. Like bringing two lumps of uranium together to create instant critical mass, the data held by major cloud based aggregation services such as Datalogix (recently acquired by Oracle for a cool $1.2billion), when fused with the data held by the likes of Google and Facebook becomes far greater than the sum of its parts. For marketers, the fresh potential to refine and target consumers to the nth degree is nothing short of digital dynamite.
Today, as service providers, Oracle and other companies like it hold detailed information gathered at point-of-sale on hundreds of millions of individuals, gathered from thousands of retailers. This information is incredibly valuable to Facebook, Google and Twitter because, by comparing it with the same consumer information they have on their own databases, they are one step closer to proving cause and effect to advertisers. Closure of this psychological and empirical gap is so attractive because it paves the way to a $200billion dollar market that, until now, has been controlled by traditional advertising agencies such as billboards, radio and TV.

The ROI of Hashing

With early case studies demonstrating a threefold return on investment for advertisers trialling the technology, Datalogix was effectively handing owners of major players, such as Facebook, the tools they needed to begin biting bigger chunks out of global advertising markets. Great news for digital platforms and retailers, great news for marketers looking for improved efficiencies through tighter targeting, bad news for ‘Mad Men’ selling traditional reach, hard-to-measure methods. The figures are mindboggling. In a press release Oracle stated:
‘Datalogix aggregates and provides insights on over $2trillion in consumer spending from 1,500 data partners across 110 million households to provide purchase-based targeting and drive more sales.’ And: ‘over 650 customers, including 82 of the top 100 US advertisers such as Ford and Kraft, as well as seven of the top eight digital media publishers such as Facebook and Twitter use Datalogix to enhance their media.’
General manager of Oracle Data Cloud, Omar Tawakol said: ‘the addition of Datalogix to the Oracle Data Cloud will provide data-driven marketers the most valuable targeting and measurement solution available. Oracle will now deliver comprehensive consumer profiles based on connected identities that will power personalization across digital, mobile, offline and TV.”
Fast forward a few years and marketers punting wares and services to the masses to reach the minority will be an extinct strategy. Up until now, it’s been one of the only strategies, but with cell phones and other mobile devices being forced into a transactional marriage with point-of-sale, driving the need for cash and cards further down the tubes, the next phase in this fascinating story will be the complete closure of this gap in the digital meets real world sales loop. Perhaps soon, it will be anathema to consider one as separate from the other. 
As for good old Uncle Ben, you can thank (or blame) him for this piece because he – or rather Mars who own the brand – started things off. In giving me my first experience of being hashed between the offline and online arenas I’ve learnt something: the world is changing, hyper-targeted marketing is happening now, and it’s intensifying. Why? Quite simply because it works: what works get used, and this works for marketers, which means that within just a few years, it’s likely to be the new global benchmark for advertisers and retailers. And that means Minority Report scenarios, in which the personalised consumer experience gets ever more finely calibrated and accurately aimed, may be with us sooner than we think.
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