Nervous couple in a awkward moment

Dating vs Online Advertising: Swipe Left or Right?


Recently I spent the weekend with a newly-single friend who, after 17 years of marriage, finds himself once again ‘on the market’. Having not dated since the last century, he’s getting a crash course in how much being single has changed, due to technology.

If you’ve been ‘off the market’ for a decade or more, you may not realize what a different, tech-inflected experience dating has become. Apps like Match, Bumble or Tinder have made it much easier to specify and connect with the type of person you’re looking for, saving you countless hours in bars.

Technology has also brought huge changes to online advertising in the past decade. But other than Facebook or Google shareholders, I’m not sure many would say unequivocally that online advertising has changed for the better. If you’re an advertiser trying to get just the right person interested in you, I’ll just say you have my sympathies.

So technology has made dating more efficient, but has it made advertising worse?

What if dating was just as bad as online advertising? Here’s what looking for love might look like:

You find yourself sitting next to the Klan.

In the physical as well as digital world, you’ll be judged partly by whoever’s sitting next to you. If you’re after a mainstream audience as most advertisers–and many daters–are, you want to avoid being associated with extremist or offensive content.

However, it’s become increasingly clear that advertisers’ brands and messages can appear in all sorts of places they didn’t intend. Ad networks place banners on tens of thousands of obscure sites, many of which would generally be considered unsavory. In the spring of 2017, major advertisers pulled their ads from YouTube because those ads ran alongside hate-filled terrorist videos.

Someone other than your expected date shows up.

Historically, information on audiences reached by advertisers was never very good (e.g. your 30-second spot during Modern Family reached 6 million households, but you had no idea which households.) Starting in the early 2000’s, what drew billions of ad dollars online was the promise that digital ads came with rich, detailed data on viewers captured from everyone’s digital trail of web use. But as a steady stream of research has shown, display ads often contain wrong information about who’s viewed them, which can be worse than no information. Multiple people using the same computer, your kids playing with your phone, your gift purchases for others, misleading clickbait, etc…all create data dissonance and often produce faulty, and sometimes embarrassing, ad targeting fails.

Your date actually ‘swiped left’.

On dating apps, swiping right on someone’s photo/profile sends a signal that you’re interested in them. If you both swipe right on each other, that indicates mutual interest, and one of you typically reaches out. One of dating apps’ key benefits is that they tell you who’s interested in you before you’ve ever met in person.

Online advertising supposedly has data to indicate who’s interested in your product, service or organization, but very often that data is wrong. Ad industry publications like AdWeek and Digiday feature stories nearly every week about the murkiness and inaccuracy of data on the number of ads viewed, the number of clicks, etc. Since sites and networks running ads often get paid each time an ad is clicked, there’s a massive financial incentive to use ‘bots’ to automatically click on ads without a human ever having seen them–collectively known as ad fraud. Imagine if your date got financially rewarded on the number of dates (s)he attends? Oh wait…that’s called something else.

Those awkward silences are 10x longer.

Imagine if I every time you spoke it would take 15 seconds or longer for your date to hear you.

Online advertising has come a long way from the early 2000’s pay-per-click Google AdWords and static display banners. Today, if you use the web for 3 minutes you’ll see ads with animation, video, and sound. Despite studies showing that users find them annoying, advertisers are making more use of video ads which automatically begin playing when they detect you’ve scrolled past them.

The trouble is, more people are viewing content and ads on their phones–and auto-playing ads on phones don’t load quickly enough. So viewers typically scroll right past while the ad loads (if you’re like me, you scroll past ads as quickly as possible.) This means that advertisers’ messages–what they’re trying to tell you–get lost in the delayed load-time. This means advertisers are paying for a still-loading ad container that mobile users breeze right past–money not well-spent. In addition, many sites are running multiple ad networks which often delays or freezes browsing. Again, bad user experience; wasted ad dollars.

You learn 100 trivial things about someone without learning anything truly important.

Online advertisers receive reams of inferential data about someone due to browser cookies – obscure sites visited, locations frequented–dozens or hundreds of columns on a spreadsheet about someone. But try finding out what really makes them tick – their goals, aspirations, fears, what they know and want to learn – and you’re likely never to get deeper than superficial demographic data. Nothing upon which you can base a truly meaningful and mutually advantageous relationship.

So what now? Should I just get a cat?

No, advertisers are not destined to be perennial wallflowers. You can actually build profitable relationships with potential clients and customers without annoying them, spamming them, or flat out ruining their user experience and impression of your brand.

There are ways to engage audiences in immersive ways that actually enhance the user experience and their impression of your brand, content, products, and services. Brands–large and small–are moving beyond or enhancing their traditional online and native advertising with more interactive tools like learning assessments. These tools provide deeper engagement and produce valuable additional data to deepen advertisers’ knowledge and understanding of their audience and prospective customers–rich, first-person data that better inform your future communications with that person.

Sounds like a good date and the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

For more on deepening audience engagement, visit

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