When Personalization Backfires— And What to Do About It

Posted on by Dirk Wybe de Jong

Personalization has been a key marketing buzzword for the last few years, and it’s not hard to see why. When you tailor a brand experience to the individual, you sell more, inspire loyalty and build advocacy. A recent Salesforce report found that a lack of personalization in marketing communications results in customers who are 52 percent more likely to switch brand.

But personalization lives squarely in the “Goldilocks Zone”—which is to say that it can be too hot or too cold, instead of just right. It’s easy to be overly distant or overly familiar.

So how do you get it “just right?”

Avoid basic errors

Start by not getting it wrong. We still regularly see big brands struggling with misspelt names or titles, while also struggling with gender and marital status. Customers may not always punish businesses for sloppiness—most consumers have received direct mail or electronic comms containing these mistakes—but they never reward them for it; it erodes brand trust making up and cross selling more difficult.

More importantly, delivering clean, error-free marketing communications is a mark of respect for the customer and their time. If you have good, up-to-date information on your customers, use it.

Don’t be a creep

If not knowing your stuff can be damaging, knowing too much can be just as bad. You’re not your customer’s friend or family member, and you don’t need to know what they’re up to in their home and private life. Just because you are tracking and storing their data doesn’t mean you have to act on this information, even if you have post-GDPR marketing consent.

Indeed, businesses are already getting this very wrong. One travel company, for example, sent brochures of travel destinations to a person’s house based on their website viewing behavior. Netflix also got into trouble for this after it trolled 53 viewers who watched A Christmas Prince 18 days in a row. This kind of “we know what you’re up to” style messaging is more at home in a blackmail note than in marketing communications, and it will be interesting to see if it’s still used in this brave new post-GDPR world, where storing, tracking, handling and processing data is more tightly regulated.

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Strike a balance

To make personalization work, you need to balance data, content and compliance. Get any of these things wrong, and you run the risk of annoying your audience (or running afoul of the law). Simply not updating your information correctly can cause havoc: in 2014, Standard Life sent a message of condolence to the estate of a customer who, well, wasn’t actually dead. Here, an attempt to come off as warm and caring had the exact opposite effect—healthy data could have prevented all this.

Accordingly, regular A/B testing is a must. One well-known travel brand ran an experiment where one batch of emails used people’s first names in a subject line, and a second batch didn’t. The business ultimately found that the former group received more spam notes than the latter. Another famous merchandising company rebranded their email server to make its announcements seem like they were coming from Darth Vader. Unfortunately, the force was not with them: 40 percent of these emails were outright deleted.

Know your audience

Cultural considerations should also be considered when personalizing content. Certain countries, for example, associate white, in all its shades, with marriage, purity, cleanliness, and all these other nice things—but Italians associate it with condolence and the Japanese associate it with death. These are connotations that can unknowingly upset or frustrate individual customers, so you must make sure your global communications are tailored to the region as well as the person.

Personalization and automation have changed marketing forever, and largely for the better. But for the careless, it’s easy for targeted communications to backfire. Make sure your data is strictly up to date, make sure you’ve considered the particular preferences of your target audience—and be friendly, but don’t ever be too familiar. Do all three things and your personalization strategy will be “just right.”

Dirk Wybe de Jong is vice president of digital marketing at Celerity.



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