Carolyn Bondi
Carolyn Bondi, Co-Founder, The Thread Team

Member Article

When personalization crosses a line

Personalization is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand personalization can make you feel special. Who does not like to be greeted by name at a favorite restaurant, having a chocolate bar delivered with your name on or your television telling you what you might like to watch next? As a result there is unsurprisingly a plethora of studies that prove personalization leads to greater engagement, greater customer loyalty, greater conversions, greater ROI and ultimately incremental revenue.

All of this is indeed true.

When done well it absolutely can result in all of these things. In fact, recently we reviewed a number of campaigns. Those that were tied to an individual’s customer journey led to a twenty seven per cent uplift in spend. And the benefits of personalization have recently been valued at a staggering $2.7 trillion so the argument for is pretty compelling. Right?


But on the other hand personalization can also be incredibly creepy. It is akin to that person at a party that just does not get the message that you really do not want to talk to them. Is there a single person out there that enjoys being stalked around the Internet by a product that you looked at for a few seconds weeks ago? Particularly when it is a personal product and then your flatmate/husband/wife/partner/brother/parent/friend or god-forbid a colleague uses your laptop only to be faced with a whopping great bells and whistles advertisement for something you would rather not be associated with. And then there are the brands that simply know too much about you.

There is a now (in)famous example of the father of a teenage girl in the US taking legal action against a supermarket for encouraging underage sex because they were sending his daughter coupons for baby clothes and paraphernalia because she was buying pregnancy vitamins so they determined she was pregnant. Sadly she had not got round to telling her family yet.

Which leads us on to the inimitable Jeff Goldblum quote “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. Yeah.. Jurassic Park moment.

And how about over personalization. I received an email the other day from a brand which used my name more than fifteen times. Hi Carolyn, we are living in difficult times. Did you know, Carolyn, that during lock down you could learn a new language? Research shows, Carolyn that… you get the picture. Just keep saying it to yourself - Jurassic Park.

Or personalization based on generic information such as gender and life stage. These campaigns become stereotypical and frankly pretty offensive.

As marketers we have access to more information about our customers than ever before - and it is all too easy for those of us who are evangelical about data (like me) can easily get caught-up in the possibilities.

But this can be a curse as customers now have much higher expectations than they did even a decade ago.

The value exchange is evolving. Consumers want brands to know them enough to deliver them something that is relevant, but not “know” them enough to creep them out.

Amazon recently filed a patent for anticipatory shipping. The company reckons it knows so much about its individual customers that it can predict what someone will buy and when and therefore it will have the product dispatched to a nearby distribution hub so that when the person does buy delivery happens within a matter of hours.

Now that is personalization done right. It is not creepy, it is smart. Using customer understanding to enhance the supply chain.

However, this could very easily turn the creepy corner and create a hybrid velociraptor nobody wants on their doorstep: Imagine if Amazon emailed the customer saying “we think you want to buy James Patterson’s new book so we are delivering it to your house in half an hour”. They have the data and they could easily do that, but just because they can does not mean they will.

What this shows is that there is very clearly a line – the problem is in diagnosing where that line is and making sure we do not cross it (or understand the risk at least).

To make things even more complicated the line moves according to the individual involved, the level of prior relationship with the organization and the sector. Hence personalization by its nature cannot be a one size fits all approach.

When it is at its most successful, it is the smart application of data used to enhance an individual’s customer experience. This removes the creepiness and makes personalization relevant rather than stalky.

Here are our top tips to help you never cross the line:

  • No personalization for the sake of it. If it is not impacting or informing better decision making do not do it.
  • Link personalization to the individual customer journey. Understand the customer based on their past and current behavior not on generic demographics that can lead to unintended offensive communications
  • Take a 360 degree view of the personalization and understand the context. This helps you diagnose the line and understand the risks of getting it wrong and the impact you could make if you do get it wrong
  • Enhance the customers view by providing them with content that will be of interest to them, but also consider the negative space. By sending them information on x, what are you stopping them from seeing? Many people’s complaints about Netflix is that they are only ever recommended programmes that look like them and sometimes they might fancy something totally different.
  • And remember the golden rule, just because you could does not mean you should. Take a minute and let common sense prevail, how would you feel, would you like it? Just say to yourself one more time before you press your big red personalization button… Jurassic Park?

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Carolyn Bondi, Co-Founder, The Thread Team .

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