For Christmas, I ordered some LEGO Star Wars from an online retailer for my son -- absolutely for my seven-year old, not for me in the slightest, you understand. Now, a couple of times a week I get the usual "Recommended for you" email, but plastered with LEGO. This personal snapshot defines recommendations as still a marketing technique practically in diapers, but helps point to where they should be going.

A Big Boy's Game

Give it a few years, if that, and I reckon online stores will know exactly when my son's birthday is, along with my daughter's (Peppa Pig, moving up to Polly Pocket and Barbie) my parents (classical CDs, always has been, always will) and will know more about my own shopping desires than I do. But you do have to wonder why they aren't doing it right now, given all the information they already possess.

Instead of this inane, "Would you like some this toy or that, or a spot of Vivaldi?" if marketing departments were really doing their jobs, we'd be getting harder-hitting messages like "It's your son's birthday next month. Right now, we have specials on this, this and this. Get them together and we'll wrap them for free. This time-limited offer won't last until your son's birthday, so act now"

Look at all the pressure points in that phrase…. Specials, time-limited, bundle, free, act now. I want to rush online and buy something right this minute.

Where Will the Data Come From?

The key issue here, especially after Path's recent user information faux pas (discussed rather succinctly on Leo Laporte's TinyTV broadcast at the weekend), is who has this data, how long can they have it and what do they do with it? Surely after analyzing my shopping patterns over the years, this online store knows I buy LEGO around the end of March, girls' toys in February and a bunch of them before Christmas. It can't take that much statistical analysis to figure out when I'll next need a LEGO TIE Fighter and a crate of pink dresses.

Then after those key dates, they can lay off the kiddie stuff and focus on what I'd like to buy with the few cents I have left after a toy splurge. Think bargains, and lots of them please, mister big-shot marketing person.

Any store that cracks this simple, hardly Apple-like, attention to detail, would get my business on a more regular basis. Which brings me to another point. Why are Apple's iTunes email messages so generic? Sure, I appreciate Madonna's new album will be big news all round, but do I, as someone with a more noisy and aggressive-sounding download history, be interested in her whole back catalog?

On the other hand, if it nodded me in the direction of odd Madonna covers by rock bands, then that might pique my interest a little more. Sure, these links and themes will be different for every user, requiring a fair amount of computer power and database research, but it's data Apple already has and would make me more interested. Just imagine a "One more thing…" link at the bottom of the usual mass email -- I'd head straight for that every time.

Down With Junk, Up With The Right Product

Still, if we're all down on junk mail so much, why is it acceptable to get these plodding, generic, email messages from stores that claim to know us better? As the general rule of Internet life goes, "if you put stuff online, expect people to use it." The online stores should surely be using it for better, more targeted, marketing than a semi-generic or completely generic mailer that you will probably discard.

I don't know if it's just me, but I get the feeling that whenever smart marketing is involved -- take Apple's Genius suggestions, for example -- the actual work involved is far from smart. I suspect the database -- say for the app store -- just picks a few more media apps, a few similar games and goes "hey, aren't I a genius for picking these?" Well, no, you're not a genius.

A real "Genius" would see I pick my new iPhone games by seeing what's being recommended by friends on Twitter. In fact, I usually go to the App store by clicking on a Twitter link. If Apple's genius was able to recognize that (and I know all it does is send what app you downloaded, not how you found it) then perhaps it might appear a little smart to me.

Pushing the Envelope

I'm not asking for miracles in marketing. All I'd like is for the people who think they are wowing us with these junk email messages to do a little more research. They can use a few more metrics, even if it means asking us for access to a little more data, to produce a better product that will make me (and hopefully you) more likely to buy.

Would you like better, more timely, marketing in your in-tray? Or none at all? If the Internet is capable of being such a powerful machine, why do we settle for these weak experiences? if you've found a better one, please let us know.