Is Your Brand Tailoring Messages or Stalking Consumers?

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May 29, 2019 6 min read
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Say a colleague passed away. You read his obituary online. Now, you’ve become the unwilling (and unwitting) target of a slew of funeral insurance ads.

Personalized? Maybe.

Creepy? Even Stephen King would say yes.

As our ability to collect high-level surveillance-style data increases, experiences like these happen more regularly. Marketers use the tremendous amounts of data at their fingertips to produce hyperindividualized content to target potential buyers. The problem is that they often go too far, which leads to withdrawal, disinterest and even fear.

According to research cited in Smithsonian Magazine, people get the willies when confronted with experiences that seem out of place, too intimate for the situation or downright ominous. Not surprisingly, they shut down and adopt a “flee” mentality, which is never good for businesses, even if they have honest intentions.

Instead of resembling the stranger who stands too close and stares too long, organizations must selectively choose the best ways to attract customers while leveraging just the right amount of relevant personal information. Consider it a modern circus balancing act — sans phobia-inducing clowns, of course.

Creepiness: A Serious Issue for Marketers: Personalization done poorly can result in significant bottom-line damage, not just spine shivers. Recent Gartner research indicates that 38 percent of consumers economically recoil when corporate attention creeps them out. Yet finely tuned, tailored messaging can actually improve the “commercial benefit index” (cart size, purchase intent, etc.) by 20 percent for those same survey participants. What these statistics mean is that going in a personalized direction is beneficial; going a bit too far in that direction can change a brand’s perception from friendly to obsessive.

Related: Me, Myself and AI: Is That My Privacy in the Rearview Mirror?

Mass customer exoduses are hardly the only downside to personalization overkill. Businesses must also worry about seeming tone-deaf. A recently divorced online browser might search for wedding-related items for a friend’s big day. But how will she feel when she becomes the target for all things nuptial from certain brands? Not so good. If she remarries in the future, she may remember and eschew those seemingly unsympathetic companies.

The bottom line is that although personalization can have benefits, it has a dark side, too. For that reason, your company would be wise to temper the desire to tailor its messages without considerable forethought. By putting a few cautionary marketing measures in place, you can position your brand as helpful, not stalker-like.

1. Remember that a little goes a long way.

Want improved consumer engagement, better conversion rates and higher retention? Go ahead with personalization. Just do it wisely by giving people what they want, rather than overloading them. Take a “less is more” strategy the way streaming services do, for example. Instead of providing viewers with all recommended options at once, Netflix and others let consumers choose their interests. The platforms then make small suggestions based on subscribers’ historic preferences to build connections organically while still leaning on data.

This type of methodical, input-based personalization is the preferred method of Sanjay Castelino, vice president of marketing at IT network Spiceworks. Why? It allows consumers to direct your marketing efforts. “Modify your level of personalization and tailor the experiences you create for different types of buyers,” Castelino advises. “This gives customers and prospects a little more control over how their data is used.” You need to be able and ready to provide the personalization your customers crave using their preferred methods.

Related: How to Make AI-Driven Emails Compelling Without Being Creepy

2. Elicit customer feedback.

Does your team spend hours brainstorming what you think customers want based on past behavioral data? Stop wasting your time. Ask for input straight from the source. From that point forward, use on-hand information to corroborate your findings. You’ll be more likely to make smart marketing decisions if you base each move on what you learn from social media comments or a research survey.

If you’ve never reached out to prospects or customers before, keep a few tips in mind. First, think pithy and succinct when developing surveys. Next, develop open-ended questions when possible to encourage commentary. Finally, give participants an opportunity to add feedback beyond the questionnaire. Still not happy with the information you glean? Pick up the phone to call some fans directly. They’ll give you the lowdown on how much personalization you can get away with before entering uncomfortable territory.

Related: How This Direct-Mail Piece Packs a Small But Powerful Punch

3. Consider your messaging medium.

A doll sitting alone on a child’s bed? Cute. A similar doll sitting alone in the crawl space of your new house? Eerie. The difference is palpable, although the doll itself is the same. An email or push notification can likewise generate completely divergent responses. Before launching any new personalization campaign, consider its context practically and empathetically. How will it feel to the recipient? Would you want to receive it? Is the content created to forge a bond, or could it cause a psychological divide?

As a Marketo survey showed, nearly 79 percent of potential customers want messaging to make sense for them based on past brand interactions. The message’s medium can also make a big difference in how it’s received. According to marketing stats compiled by Small Business Trends, 70 percent of consumers regard direct mail as more personal, while MarketingSherpa found that 54 percent of customers actually prefer it. “When done correctly, direct mail provides marketers with an opportunity to put a real, personalized message in the hands of each and every one of their customers — without the fear of the message bouncing or getting caught in a spam filter,” says Patrick McCullough, client strategy director at Hallmark Business Connections.

Everyone has gotten goosebumps at one time or another, particularly when brands cross the line from benign outreach to what appears to be stalking. Make sure no one experiences cold chills thanks to your brand’s attempts at personal messaging. Otherwise, you may be relegated to your customers’ nightmares.


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