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Helpful or creepy? Making sure you don’t cross the line when using personalization

5 min. Read

Customers want true personalization when they interact with brands. That’s a fact backed up by a lot of research and real-world experience. But there’s a fine line between giving people what they need and overreaching to the point where your efforts become invasive or creepy. 

The more data you have to work with, the more possibilities there are to go too far. The classic example is the story of the Target marketing campaign that sent a teenage girl coupons for cribs and baby clothes after its platform (correctly) determined she was in the early stages of pregnancy. Imagine how it must have felt to be a teenager having to explain to an angry father why she was getting these coupons, or wondering how they could possibly have known about it when she hadn’t even told her closest family.

It’s been used as a cautionary tale of what not to do ever since, and with good reason. After all, no-one wants their store revealing major private information to their family members before they do, or to realize that it knows more about what’s going on in their home than they do.

Not using personalization at all is a recipe for failure in today’s environment. But getting your efforts wrong could do more damage than you realize, resulting in a loss of trust and even lost business.

The need for relevant personalization

Striking the right balance is hard. You need to know what your customer wants. But you also don’t want to be seen as knowing too much about them. Done correctly, personalization offers many benefits – increased revenue, better customer relationships and more efficient marketing spend to name but a few.

When done well, the benefits of personalization are clear. Research from Accenture, for example, shows 91 percent of consumers are more likely to shop with brands that recognize, remember, and provide relevant offers and recommendations to them, while 83 percent are willing to share data to enable a personalized experience. Therefore, companies that can offer this in their marketing stand well-placed in a highly competitive market.

Telcos, like retailers, are especially able to take advantage of these opportunities because of the highly personal nature of the data they collect, particularly when it comes to information like weblogs and location data. The key to success is knowing when to act in order to make your customer happy.

On a simple level, this could be something like recommending a more suitable plan if their billing shows they are placing expensive international calls. But what if, say, you could tell a customer is moving house based on their weblog data – such as browsing websites for real estate and furniture removal firms?

You could then reach out and offer them a free data upgrade for a month until they get their home broadband up and running, or even offer a cross-sell to bundle these into one package, offering a relevant value proposition that can surprise and delight the customer.

How personalization can cross the line into creepy

Despite these benefits, the tale of the Target mailer is just one example of how personalization can quickly become creepy if brands overshare what they know about their customers, or do so in a way that’s likely to cause awkwardness or embarrassment. 

This can be especially the case when this is based on information the customer didn’t knowingly or voluntarily share, such as web tracking cookies. This can lead to people wondering exactly how a brand knows certain information and worrying about companies ‘spying’ or ‘stalking’ them.

When this goes too far, it can easily become creepy. Imagine getting personalized recommendations from lifestyle brands or weight loss programs that know your dress size. Or staff members or displays that greet you by name, even if you’ve never stepped foot in that store before. 

This tells customers that they’re being tracked and their personal data is being shared in ways they haven’t explicitly agreed to. The results of this can easily be to send customers running and ensure they never come back.

However, it’s also not only about what you say, but also how you say it and the means you use. This is particularly relevant when it comes to interacting with people via their phones – which is something that telcos will naturally have to be especially mindful of. This is because people increasingly view these devices as a critical tool that’s part of their everyday personal space. Therefore, anything that interrupts this relationship needs to tread very carefully.

According to SmarterHQ, three-quarters of people rate push notifications as the most invasive channel, with just three per cent saying this is the best way for brands to communicate with them. This highlights that, even if your messaging is timely and relevant, it can easily come across as intrusive.

Getting personalization right at scale

When we talk about customers wanting personalization, in truth, what we really mean is that customers want relevance. And this can mean different things to different people. Some people want an experience that makes interacting with the brand as easy and fast as possible, and are perfectly happy to allow access to their data to do so. Others, however, may not. Therefore, you need to identify the optimal degree of personalization for each customers’ communication, not just aim for the highest possible.

Gaining genuine, informed consent must play a key role in any personalization strategy. This must be more than a box-checking exercise. Indeed, many ‘consent’ mechanisms in use today are ‘privacy theater’ that don’t actually get true consent. When a customer has true choice and gives consent for marketing use of their data, they are far more likely to remember it and not feel your personalized messages are creepy.   

Having the right systems in place is also vital when working at scale. This means tools to help you identify personal data and ensure your use complies with privacy regulations like GDPR, models that can spot and leverage key customer attributes, and technologies that can operationalize the data. This means selecting the right audience, message and offer creation for a campaign, as well as when and how it’s delivered.

Getting this right on a large scale – which for telcos could mean tens of millions of customers – isn’t easy. But there are a few key factors that brands need to bear in mind to avoid falling on the wrong side of the line.

Learn more about how Intent HQ’s privacy-focused, AI-driven platform helps you achieve true personalization at scale and at speed.

Image credit: iStockphoto/gorodenkoff