We’re all familiar with the concept of algorithmic marketing. Each time we put something on our Netflix queue, for example, we get a popup suggesting a dozen other films we might like, chosen based on similar characteristics. Facebook assigns us ads based on what we have liked and also what our friends like (if 10 of Ellen’s friends like this, she might too). Amazon tells us that other people who bought the product we are about to buy also bought X, Y and Z. This may lead to some unintentionally comic pairings (I once bought a steamy romance novel and some wool yarn the same day, which led to some interesting suggestions) but it works often enough that algorithmic suggestion marketing is not going to disappear appear anytime soon. It is, in fact, likely to get even more sophisticated, to the point where Eric Qualman suggests that we will not need to go searching for products in the future: they will find us.
Now, Netflix is set to release the first agorithmically developed program. Based on data collected from users over a period of time and learning, for example, that users who liked the BBC series House of Cards also liked Kevin Spacey movies, they decided to remake House of Cards starring – you guessed it – Kevin Spacey.
This kind of programming would probably be scorned by most not-for-profit programmers, but the marketing part of it has some intriguing possibilities. Wouldn’t it be interesting, as Jamie Bennett, chief of staff and director of public affairs at the NEA told Barry Hesenius in this interview, if we were able to find people who enjoyed jazz music and liked the movie The Color Purple and suggest that they might enjoy the Bill T. Jones Dance Company? Of course, we’ve done it informally for years: pulling the names of matinee audiences from our database to announce a new Wednesday afternoon series; comparing our offerings to other performers with which our audiences might be more familiar (if you like movies about the 1920s, you’ll love this music written in the 1920s!). But creating programming based on audience preference? That goes against our mission.
Or does it? Adam Hutter, the creator of Fractured Atlas and one of the most innovative people I know, says that when we hide behind our mission argument, that can become an elitist copout, or at the very least an excuse for doing just what we want to do and not considering our audiences at all. After all, says Hutter, Shakespeare was popular and sold a lot of tickets. And he was a ruthless promoter and marketer, too.
Of course, I don’t want us to go all the way down the road to Dumb and Dumber II, but I do think that we need to recognize that, within the context of mission, we can certainly be a little more sophisticated about understanding what our audiences are likely to buy.