How to lose friends and antagonise people

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Union Direct Managing Director, Gus Chalmers, tackles the issue of creepy personalisation head-on and offers some top tips for walking the fine line between success and alienation.

Dale Carnegie famously observed that “a person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” However, as Jeremy Bullmore pointed out more recently1, in relation to data, personalisation and marketing ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ – the inappropriate use of personal data is just as likely to turn a customer off as turn them on. So, where should marketers draw the line between relevant and targeted versus just plain creepy?

Marketers have long realised the basic truth that people like and respond to the sound of their own name. Whether it was the corner store owner who greeted his regular customers by name or the barman who could not only put a name to a well-known face but have their usual poured and waiting for them before they had time to settle on a bar stool.

And it is unquestionably true that even in today’s world a more personal, relevant message is more likely to engage the recipient than a blanket, non-personalised approach. An academic study in 20162 demonstrated for example that simply adding a first name to an email had a significant impact, increasing the open rate by 20%, sales leads by 31% and unsubscribes by 17%.

It follows that businesses can reap worthwhile rewards from a more personalised approach to their marketing. A recent study of 50 companies across 10 industry sectors by the Boston Consulting Group concluded that ‘brands that create personalised experiences by integrating digital technologies and proprietary data are seeing revenues increase by 6% to 10%’.3

So, what could possibly go wrong? In today’s data-rich world, quite a lot it would seem.  Accenture have reported that in the US 41% of US customers had ‘ditched a company because of poor personalisation and lack of trust’. According to Accenture that equates to $756 billion in lost sales … wow! $756 BILLION. According to another study by InMoment (2018 CX Trends Report) 22% would look around for other brands if they found a particular company’s personalisation a bit creepy. 9% said they would write negative reviews on the internet.

However you look at it, the stakes are high. Even more so when you consider that at the same time as hating bad personalisation and demanding data privacy consumers apparently want a good, relevant and individualised experience – a survey by Cloud IQ found that 83% think of an individualised experience as important.

So, what counts as creepy?

As technology has advanced the opportunities to use data to personalise communications and experiences have obviously grown exponentially and the marketing community have naturally rushed to embrace this opportunity. We’re not just talking about annoying direct mail pieces that repeat your name 10 times in a single letter. Now we’re talking about everything from retargeted online advertising to facial recognition in-store.

What are the approaches that might potentially turn people off? Retargeted advertising is perhaps a good place to start. It involves the common practice of a website placing a cookie on your computer so their ads can haunt you forever and wherever you might travel on the internet. Mostly this is annoying, rather than creepy, as you carry on seeing the ads long after you’ve actually purchased the product or lost interest in it.

Occasionally however, this intrusion can lead to some real-life problems, particularly if the consumer shares their computer with a loved one; surprise presents become a thing of the past unless you have a regular cookie clear-out. There’s also the potential for lots of other ‘surprises’ too but we won’t go into that here…

Taking this intrusion up a notch further, many people have recounted having a discussion with someone face-to-face about a particular topic only to find that advertising related to that topic starts hitting them through their smartphone apps. Can these apps really be spying on them through their phone? Really? Mark Zuckerberg has denied that Facebook do this calling it a ‘conspiracy theory’, and it does seem unlikely that they are literally listening to your every word so they can target advertising at you. Surely it would require so much data, storage space and processing power that it just wouldn’t be practical. They wouldn’t do that, would they…?

Research in the US and the UK by RichRelevance specifically sought to find out which technologies shoppers might find cool and which were creepy. Unsurprisingly, tools that leave them in control of their shopping experience are welcome; for example being able to scan a product and get instant, relevant reviews and recommendations was liked by 62% of respondents. At the other end of the scale 75% of shoppers thought that facial recognition software that allowed them to be targeted in-store with personalised offers was a ‘step too far’. 75% also thought that if their mobile signalled their presence in-store, being greeted by the salesperson using their name was definitely ‘creepy’.

Steering clear of creepy

Nobody wants to be accused of being creepy, so what can brands do to stay squeaky clean?

Here are three golden rules to avoid getting a bad reputation;

  1. Be transparent about the data you’re collecting and what you’ll do with it.

Data drives any personalisation – and generally consumers are willing to let you have their data if they can see the benefit (Accenture’s ‘Pulse Check 2018’ reported that 83% of consumers are willing to share their data to enable a personalised experience). So don’t trick people into consenting to use their data, make it more obvious what you’re collecting and why.

Recognise though that there are limits to what data you should even ask for – the earlier example of facial recognition is a good one.  (Remember though that acceptance could change over time so it’s worth keeping your finger on the pulse to see what consumers are happy to share with you.)

  1. Context is king.

How and when you use data is critical too. Somebody’s name added to an email has an immediate, positive impact. The same name used by a sales assistant you’ve never met to approach you in a showroom because your mobile has been flagged to them will just seem intrusive. Be sensible about how you use data and just as you should keep tabs on what data it’s acceptable to collect, keep an eye on trends for what’s acceptable use – and how that may vary by audience segment.

  1. Apply a little subtlety!

Just because you have data and permission to use it doesn’t mean you always have to use it. So, if using direct mail, don’t keep using the recipient’s name in a ‘Readers Digest’ sort of way. Maybe you don’t need to remind them of their name in every ad you target at them online? Maybe you could use what you know about them to personalise the content but without banging on about how personalised it is?

Personalisation and one-to-one dialogue undoubtedly represent the future for marketing communications. For this conversation to be authentic and lasting though, brands require the consent of consumers and their trust. So be open and transparent with them and treat them with respect. In the long run it will help you win friends and influence what they buy from you.

THIS NEWS JUST IN! Some online advertising may now not only be creepy but possibly also … criminal! The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has singled out the programmatic advertising industry for harsh criticism in particular querying the legality of real-time bidding (RTB is the process where advertisers bid in auctions for advertising impressions, bought and sold in seconds). What’s at issue is how transparent (or not) the platforms (mostly Facebook or Google) are being with their users about what data is held on them and how it is being used in this context. The ICO said in a report this week “The adtech industry appears immature in its understanding of data protection requirements … The processing operations involved in RTB are of a nature likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals.”

Gus Chalmers is the Managing Director of Union Direct, Union Group’s specialist customer engagement agency.


1 Jeremy Bullmore, WPP Annual Report, 2016

2 Sahni, Chintagunta, Stanford University, University of Chicago, October 23rd 2016 ‘Personalisation in Email Marketing: The Role of Non-Informative Advertising Content’.

3 Profiting from Personalisation, Boston Consulting Group, May 2017