Judging personalisation on the Hierarchy of Creepiness

mfantisJoan, the titular protagonist (or perhaps victim) in the first episode in the new series of Black Mirror, may indeed be awful. However, the potential for personalisation – at least as conceived by Charlie Brooker is naturally worse. The underlying message here is that it’s a case of ‘us’ against ‘them’ in the digital world, so read the T&Cs people!

The ‘Joan is Awful’ episode nails contemporary fears of AI and of the power of the global digital giants. But looking beyond these macro anxieties, Joan characterises all of our nagging concerns about how much ‘the Internet’ (read advertisers) seem to know about us personally.

Every time the Google search bar autofills our darkest thoughts, or Amazon suggests “we thought you’d like a harpsichord” at the one point you’d ever thought about the instrument, then you have to wonder what’s going on?
As marketers we know this comes down to the interplay of algorithms and behavioural economics, but this doesn’t make online ads any less creepy to the person on the street.

Personalisation sits firmly atop the pyramid of what we might call the Hierarchy of Creepiness – and this explains why so many marketers still avoid it. This is a shame because I’d hate to see another perfectly serviceable discipline go the way of retargeting because a minority oversteps the boundaries.

Clearly, the Information Commissioner’s Office would have something to say about the type of dark future envisioned by Brooker, but it shouldn’t just be up to the regulators. As marketers, we need to exercise common sense around how, when and why we employ personalisation.

If we can find the balance between what works for brands and customers, all parties will benefit. As such, I’d recommend we factor in three considerations ahead of embarking on any campaign incorporating personalisation:

Will customers actually benefit from personalisation? A personally addressed email that is otherwise entirely generic, or worse irrelevant, is still spam. Personalisation should represent an investment in building a relationship, therefore it should be closely targeted to a customer’s demonstrable interests – and the content must be genuinely useful. If not, the recipient has every right to hit the ‘unsubscribe’ button.

Context is key. A name, address and purchase history aren’t enough to really know someone, so the more granular your segmentation is the better. As a bare minimum you need to know why a customer has bought the item(s) in question – was it for themself or was it a gift? Also, how do they want to engage, how often and so-on? Context really is everything.

Less is more. Yes everyone loves data, but collecting, analysing, storing and segmenting it is a big job, and why make life difficult? Once you’ve looked at the contextual triggers to be sure the prospect is right, consider what you really need for the experience you have already planned – and stick to it.

Personalisation is the start of a relationship that should be built around a mutually beneficial value exchange. As with any relationship, asking for every detail of someone’s life story upfront rings alarm bells. Once trust has been established, there’s every chance the end user will be open to sharing further information down the line.

So, let’s be less awful and aspire to make personalisation personable.

Mike Fantis is VP managing partner at DAC Group

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