How to keep the ‘person’ in ‘personalization’ without being a creep


Some brands don’t target well enough, while others go way too far, creeping people out. With personalized marketing, striking a delicate balance is the key. 

Personalization is an important skill for any marketer to master, but it’s also quite a difficult one. There are just so many different ways it can go wrong.

If your ads don’t have any personalized components, people perceive them as not being relevant enough, making them that much more likely to use an ad blocker (provided they’ve heard of ad blockers).

But on the flip side, it is possible to go overboard with personalization. If people perceive your brand to be like Big Brother, they’ll be just as turned off.

As with many things, the answer is somewhere in the middle. If you’re looking to personalize your ads, the most important thing to remember is that the root of that word is “person.”

The pitfalls of getting too computerized

Jan Jensen, chief marketing officer (CMO) of Cxense, points out that as marketing gets more complicated, the sophistication of automation technology makes it easier for advertisers to get away from the person.

“In this day and age, where we have more moving pieces, it’s very complex. Being able to know the challenges, pain points, grievances and profiles of your audience is 20 times more important than it was five years ago,” says Jensen. “Depending on what people do, the data we have, their interest and intent around the content they consume and the profile we have on them, we can predict what they want next.”

A businessman is consulting a crystal ball to foretell the future.

As a result, things can get a bit too automated. Marketers often create a journey for customers, automate it, and move onto the next thing. But in the process, they’re assuming too much. There should be a balance.

For instance, artificial intelligence (AI) lacks the human emotions to realize it’s doing something insensitive. A robot would serve someone tons of ads for diet products, whereas a person could see how doing that constantly could hurt the customer’s feelings.

Jensen believes this extends to all the brands who have been using chatbots as customer service tools.

“I think chatbots have their place somewhere extremely straightforward, but human beings aren’t very straightforward,” says Jensen. “I think they need to be much more aware of who you are; it needs to know more than that I’m a male and my name is Jan.”

… as well as too creepy

On the flip side, tech companies like Amazon and Facebook know far more about us than our names and gender. They may even know us better than some of our loved ones; does your mom know what you Google? (Ew, she does? Gross.)

But you have to be careful about showing your cards. If you let people know just how much you know about them, more than being simply freaked out, they can hurt your ROI. Richard Sharp, chief technology officer at Yieldify, points to a concept called psychological reactance that will be familiar to anyone who’s raised – or been – a teenager.


“If people feel their behavioral freedom is being restricted or manipulated, they will explicitly react against that in order to restore their freedom,” explains Sharp. “A lot of research shows that when people perceive creepiness online, it results in this feeling of, ‘You’re trying to manipulate me and force me to take this cause of action,’ which causes people to react against the brand, which decreases purchase intent by 5 percent.”

The way around that, according to Sharp, is to be very upfront about the value proposition. If an email from Bloomingdale’s is highly personalized, people may be a bit taken aback. But if the email has information about a sale at the nearest Bloomingdale’s location, they may perceive it differently.

“If you trigger a really well-designed campaign at the point when someone is about to leave the site or stop browsing, it catches people’s eyes and draws them back to the site,” adds Sharp. “It converts really well without interrupting the customer journey or annoying people.”

In order to keep the person and personalization, Sharp recommends user-centric research.

“A lot of marketers like looking at numbers and click-through rates and conversions and cost-per-acquisitions, which is a view that takes the human out,” he says. “Get some qualitative data to back up this quantitative data so the human side doesn’t get lost behind a wall of numbers.”

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