August 20, 2019

What every marketer needs to know about personalization


Does anything reliably alienate and annoy consumers more than the words “Dear valued customer”? Any time you tell customers they’re small parts of a large, faceless mass of people, their affinity for your brand shrinks. Nobody wants to be a number – they want to be treated as unique individuals with their own personalities, values, and preferences. And they want their relationships with your brand to reflect this fact.

Personalization has become a major priority for brands and marketers in recent years. A 2019 Evergage survey of marketing professionals reports that a staggering 98 percent of them say personalization “helps advance customer relationships.” While the value of personalization isn’t in question, when brands and marketers get it wrong, the consequences can be dire – from suggestions that fall flat to targeted ads and other forms of engagement that are annoying or (even worse) creepy. As data collection and analysis becomes more advanced and consumers continue to demand products, services, and experiences that reflect their individual interests and concerns, personalization is only going to become more important. Here are a few ways you can get it right.

#1 Avoid creepiness at all costs

Companies have never had more information about their customers or more ways to put it to use. From algorithms that offer suggestions based on our viewing and listening habits (think Netflix and Spotify) to data on usage habits that allow design teams to make websites and apps more user-friendly, the opportunities for personalization are unprecedented.

But as the opportunities have increased, so have the risks. According to a 2018 survey by InMoment, 75 percent of consumers find “most forms of personalization at least somewhat creepy.” While this may come as a surprise considering how many consumers are demanding personalization, it shouldn’t. After a series of highly publicized data breaches, scandals like the one involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, and the implementation of major security and privacy laws like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), consumers are acutely aware of how their data are being handled.

What’s more, there are countless examples of attempts at personalization gone terribly awry, and many of them have made the headlines. Take the most infamous example to date: When Target figured out a teenager was pregnant before her father – and sent advertisements and coupons for maternity products to the family home – it was a reminder that companies need to be extremely careful when it comes to the intimate details of their customers’ lives.

According to a recent McKinsey survey, there are many forms of personalization that make consumers uncomfortable. For example, 41 percent of American respondents say they’re concerned when companies they don’t recognize contact them, 40 percent dislike location tracking messages, and 38 percent feel uneasy when they receive solicitations immediately after searching for a product online. As you develop your own personalization initiatives, never forget that the worst thing you can do is creep out your customers.

#2 Recognize what personalization is and isn’t

Think about the last time you bought something on Amazon – let’s just say it was a pair of shoes. Did you like being chased around the Internet by ads for shoes for days or even weeks afterward? This crude form of personalization isn’t just ineffective (if you just bought shoes, you probably aren’t eager to buy even more) – it’s obnoxious and invasive.

According to Gartner, 65 percent of marketers say they “feel overwhelmed by the need to create more content to support personalization.” Meanwhile, just 32 percent of marketing professionals believe their industry is “currently getting personalization right.” The pressure to create personalized content is leading to a whole lot of mistakes like the ones outlined above, which is why Gartner stresses an “extremely thoughtful” approach that uses the “right balance of data to boost message relevance, without making things too personal.”

For example, I use a digital booking platform called Sawyer to schedule classes and other activities for my kids. By analyzing the personal information I provide (such as the kids’ ages and preferences), Sawyer connects me with a vast range of teachers and events that are perfectly suited to our needs. This is how personalization should be done.

Like many of the surveys on attitudes toward personalization, a recent Accenture report found that 83 percent of consumers are “willing to share their data to enable a personalized experience.” But as we’ve seen over and over again, this should never be interpreted as a warrant to use these data to badger your customers or invade their privacy.

#3 Make data security a top priority

According to the Accenture survey, among the respondents who say they’ve had a creepy personalization experience, “almost two-thirds (64 percent) say it was because the brand had information about the consumer that they didn’t share knowingly or directly.” This is yet another reminder that consumers are increasingly concerned about the privacy of their data.

You can’t have privacy without security. Even if you do your best to avoid all the problems outlined above – from creepiness to counterproductive personalization techniques like the overuse of targeted ads – a data breach can poison your relationship with your customers more quickly than just about anything.

This is particularly important in the age of personalization, as the demand for personalized experiences continues to rise, brands and marketers will continue to collect and analyze large quantities of consumer data. Meanwhile, as GDPR demonstrates, the regulations surrounding the management of that data will only become stricter.

But data-centric companies have to go beyond compliance with all the relevant laws and regulations – they have to make security a priority at every level. From security training that teaches employees how to identify cyber threats (such as phishing and other forms of social engineering) to the observance of best practices like automatically updating software and vetting the apps and devices employees use, you have to do everything possible to keep your customers’ information safe.

Personalization is one of the most powerful ways to forge stronger relationships with your customers and keep them engaged in the future. As long as you respect the boundary between helpful and creepy, personalize products and services in a way that streamlines and improves the customer experience, and keep your customers’ data safe, personalization will continue to be one of your most valuable assets.

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