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Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Jirsak)

Personalization is a double-edged sword. On the one hand personalization can make you feel special. Who doesn’t 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 27 per cent uplift in spend. And Accenture values the benefits of personalization 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’s akin to that person at a party that just doesn’t get the message that you don’t 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’s 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’d rather not be associated with.

And then there are the brands that simply know too much about you.

There’s 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 hadn’t got round to telling her family yet…

Personalization done right, not creepy

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.

As marketers we have access to more information about our customers than ever before - and it’s 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’s 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 center so that when the person does buy delivery is speeded up significantly – to 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 sporn 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’re delivering it to your house in half an hour’. They have the data and they could easily do that, but just because they can doesn’t mean they will.

Don't cross the line

The Isle of Wight Coronavirus Track and Trace app pilot is a good example of the misuse of data that leads to consumers getting freaked about personalization and the use of their personal information. Residents were asked to download the app and provide a host of information including marital status, ethnicity etc. As a result people were suspicious which resulted in poor take up. You and I know that this data will be used for demographic profiling – but Joe Blogs from Ventnor doesn’t know that. He might think that the government wants to use the data for some other more sinister purpose. To the untrained eye it feels weird that the app wants to know such things. It is important to take customers on a journey and explain to them why the data is being collected and what it will be used for.

What all these examples show is that there is very clearly a line – the problem is in diagnosing where that line is and making sure we don’t 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 can’t 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:

  1. Don’t do personalization for the sake of it. If it isn’t impacting or informing better decision making don’t do it.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 programs that look like them and sometimes they might fancy something totally different.
  5. And remember the golden rule, just because you could doesn’t 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?

Carolyn Bondi, co-founder, The Thread Team (opens in new tab)

Carolyn Bondi is the co-founder of new breed of marketing consultancy, The Thread Team.