Friday, July 18, 2008

When Personalization Gets Creepy

We Interactive Marketers love personalization, but a little bit goes a long way--or perhaps no distance at all--according to a new study out of the University of Illinois.

Starting an email with "Dear Jennifer" is a nice way to make the message more friendly (provided the recipient is, in fact, named Jennifer). Telling Jennifer that she may like a new CD and basing this recommendation upon her past purchases is a smart way to increase sales. But telling her that because she likes Radiohead she'll like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs may cross a line and make Jennifer less likely to purchase from you.

According to Tiffany Barnett White, a University of Illinois marketing professor who headed the research, "People bristle at personalization just for the sake of personalization... When messages are highly personalized, but lack value and justification, they have unintended effects. They can actually have a boomerang effect and cast the firm in a negative light, sending customers running to the competition."

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that the degree of personalization didn't matter; it was the value to the consumer that mattered the most! Says White, "If the offer was valuable and justified, the level of personal information didn't matter. Firms were no better off for throwing all of your personal information at you."

Another interesting aspect of the study was that the consumer data used in the test was provided by the study participants and not derived from a third party. In other words, it doesn't matter that consumers provide marketers with their data, they still don't want brands using that info to get overly chummy.

White isn't suggesting that marketers scrap their personalization efforts, but she does say, "I think the big takeaway from this research is that personalization might not matter and it may actually hurt."

The lesson is an important one considering the amount of consumer transaction and behavior data to which marketers have access. Leveraging that data to provide high-value offers to consumers is smart marketing, but misusing that data to imply you know something about the consumer or to suggest a relationship with the consumer that is anything more than it is will turn people off.

The University of Illinois press release ends with a statement every marketer should take to heart, and not just with respect to email but with every program we execute: "Nowadays, consumers are so much more savvy. They're so bombarded with tricks of this nature that they start to seem like tricks. So the onus in on marketers to convince consumers that this isn't a trick, that it has some value."

We've discussed the concept of consumer-perceived value often on this blog. Marketers must adjust their strategies to reach increasingly savvy consumers in an ever more crowded marketing world where the consumers often hold the tools to control their own exposure to advertising. The Experiential Marketing Continuum is a model for considering the value to consumers of different channels or programs. They key to getting a marketing message delivered--in email as in other media--is to offer consumers something of value that they'll want, respect, welcome, and wish to share.


Anonymous said...

Similarly, there's a white paper I just read on "breaking away from bad email" and moving towards "intentional" email. Can you offer some examples of smart vendor interactive marketing?

Unknown said...

I agree with this whole personalization thing. I've never really thought it was all that personal when an e-mail starts with your name, but then reads like a canned message. Everyone pretty much knows how easy it is to just insert someones name in a mail merge.

The benefit of personalization really comes when you can customize the actually message. In a letter it would be the body, in a website it would be products/services displayed etc.

Even that though, can be tricky. For example, I usually use Amazon to send people gifts - easier then offline. So, when it suggests something to me by saying "Shailesh you may also like this..." then it's kind of misleading.

My biggest peeve though is when they try to assume your gender. As someone with a non-Anglo-Saxon name, I often get Dear. Mrs. Shailesh Ghimire....

I laugh... becuase I myself am a marketer...:-)

Augie Ray said...

Social Media Whiz,

Thanks for the comments. I agree with the frustration over the improper assumptions marketers can make with respect to names. My name is often reversed (Ray August instead of August Ray) since some people will assume Ray is a first name. Doesn't happen too often with database marketing (since this is untouched by human hands), but it's one way I can tell a sales person doesn't really know me when they email or call!