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The dangers of getting marketing personalisation wrong

(Image credit: Image Credit: SFIO CRACHO / Shutterstock)

According to a recent survey by SmarterHQ, 72 per cent of consumers said they’d only engage with marketing tactics tailored to their specific, unique interests.

The obvious response to this is to scale up personalisation tactics. But it’s not as easy as just appending a first and last name to an email. Personalisation requires businesses to get up close and personal with their customers.

And when they get too close, that can lead to problems.

A breach of trust

Many of today’s brands are struggling to get personalisation right—and, once they get it right, to scale it. When personalisation goes wrong, it usually means customers are being shown irrelevant content.

For example, it’s common for businesses to highlight products that customers have previously purchased. Yet if that purchase is something only made periodically, such as a major appliance or home renovations, there’s no point in repeatedly marketing those products. In addition, it makes little sense to highlight products connected to a one-off purchase a customer may have made several months ago for their distant aunt.

The truth is that incorrectly targeted ads or content recommendations do little to build trust and brand loyalty with customers. They can actually prevent sales due to the disruptions they cause in the customer journey.

How do you know when you’re not personalising your marketing efforts enough? Here are two possible symptoms:

  • Your consumers tend not to perform the desired action.
  • Your site experiences high bounce rates and poor conversion.

Funny—and frustrating

The need to be relevant is now a norm in digital advertising—as it’s been for advertising across all media. According to Accenture, 91 per cent of consumers say they’re more likely to shop with brands that provide them with offers and recommendations that are relevant to them. And when companies get that wrong, their customers are likely to not trust their brand.

Some consumers find irrelevant content not just funny—but annoying and quite frustrating.

Consider this data from an Adobe survey reported by

  • 67 per cent of respondents said it’s important for brands to adjust content based on their current context automatically
  • 42 per cent of respondents said they get annoyed when their content isn’t personalised
  • 33 per cent of respondents are turned off by poorly designed content
  • 29 per cent of respondents dislike content that isn’t optimised for their devices

As if that isn’t bad enough, 66 per cent of the consumers surveyed said that any of these situations would stop them from making a purchase.

A big guessing game

What causes this disconnect in content and audience?

A lot of personalisation is still based on calculated guesswork. That’s because personalisation strategies rely on several levels of inaccuracies that can pile up throughout the customer’s journey. Companies may be personalising their ad content using incorrect (or outdated) customer data, for example.

Another problem comes from the fact that consumer preferences are often derived (or assumed) based on what algorithms tell companies about customer behaviour. As sharp and savvy as a company’s algorithm might be, the truth is that it’s not easy to understand the real-world motivations of why someone took a particular action or made a particular purchase.

Most marketing strategies segment users into buckets. What this means is that there can be a slew of consumer characteristics in common with a particular segment. Sometimes, this results in a generalisation that causes the wrong consumer segment to be targeted.

Which begs the question: Are all the people in a consumer segment really visiting your site for the same reasons?

Data from a 2017 study by Sitecore and Vanson Bourne reveal some startling findings:

  • 59 per cent of brands use out-of-date information about their customers
  • 57 per cent of brands get their customers’ personal details wrong
  • 54 per cent of brands make assumptions about customers based on single interactions or purchases

Work with (your own) data

So how do you solve for the problems in erroneous personalisation?

It starts with getting the data right. If you’re having problems with your personalisation tactics, perform a consumer data audit to eliminate inaccuracies and to correct dated information.

Stop relying on data about your customers gathered from third-party sources. Focus instead on getting your data from previous interactions with a particular customer, also known as sero-party data.

Several privacy laws are actually mandating this, including the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). Other states are creating similar legislation around this issue.

A strategy of gathering data by directly asking consumers about their preferences and motivations will eliminate the guesswork that can lead to problems in the first place.

To incentivise your consumers to respond to your questions and to put their trust in your brand, offer them special offers or coupons as a reward. According to Accenture, 83 per cent of customers are willing to share their data with companies in order to create a more personalised experience for themselves.

Another thing to remember: Personalisation relies heavily on automation. If you want to get serious about strengthening your personalisation efforts, you’ll need data experts who understand what kinds of variables to track and what AI models to implement in order to give you better insights.

Take the scientific approach

Don’t be afraid to experiment—that’s how new ground is broken.

You can launch a personalisation program that will be generally relevant for each of your customer segments, then follow that up with more targeted improvements. Ensure you’re doing A/B testing and tracking relevant metrics to see if your experiments are helping.

Focus on getting as relevant as possible, and analyse parts of your customer segments that didn’t respond. See if you’ve accidentally made some generalisations that may not have worked for them.

As more of your experiments succeed and you learn what’s working (and what isn’t), you can provide more sharply relevant content and offers to your customers. In some cases, this may mean micro-segmenting your customer base; in other cases, it could mean specifically targeting individual customers.

Keep privacy in mind

Take care to tread carefully, as there’s a fine line between being personal and being outright creepy.

Remember that data is the key ingredient behind personalisation—but as a brand, you’ll still have to perform a careful balancing act to deliver personalised experiences that respect consumer privacy.

Keep your consumers’ privacy top of mind, and always get consent to use their personal data. That way, you strengthen your trust with the consumer instead of jeopardising it.

Consumers are far too inundated with messages from all over the place (including, possibly, from your competitors). They’re a lot less forgiving now of brands that throw irrelevant content in their faces.

That spray-and-pray approach to digital marketing and advertising? Those days are long gone.

Vivek Lakshman, co-founder and VP Product, Reve Marketing

Vivek Lakshman is VP Innovation at Pramati Technologies, a global startup incubator and technology investor. Vivek co-founded Pramati venture, and as VP Products he leads product management and strategy for this growing company focused on conversation-based consumer experiences and conversion marketing.