Whoa, That’s Creepy: 5 Tips to Keep Marketing Personalization Out of the Creepiness Ditch

Personalization Creepiness Ditch (2)

Personalization, it’s often touted as the holy grail of the digital marketing experience, but every single one of us has had moments where we’ve been creeped out by a brand’s interactions with us online. Whether they know too much, it was unexpected, or it completely unwanted – the experience left us with a bad taste. Below, we’re going to dissect why this happens and how to avoid it as you build your own personalization strategy.

What is Personalization in Marketing?

Personalization in marketing, which is sometimes called one-to-one marketing, is the practice of using data about a consumer to personalize their experience with your brand. Typically, this includes tailoring communications to the individual consumer, tailoring the homepage of a website, personalizing digital ads, etc. 

What Are the Benefits?

There is no doubt about the benefits of personalization when it’s done right. With brands touting higher conversion rates, higher email click-through rates, website visitors spending more time on your site, and higher rates of customer loyalty. 

  • 75% of video views on Netflix are the result of a customer clicking on a personalized recommendation. 
  • 50% of listening on Spotify is the result of personalized playlists. 
  • 35% of purchases on Amazon were from personalized recommendations. 
  • 91% of consumers are more likely to shop on a website that recognizes them.
  • 81% of consumers are willing to provide their data for a personalized experience. 

With other marketers getting these results, it can be tempting to jump feet first into personalizing your own digital experience. But if you’re not careful, you can end up alienating customers and causing them to churn.

When is personalization not beneficial?

It Can Be Expensive.

Personalization can quickly get expensive. The creative costs alone can sink your ROI. If you are creating personalized email campaigns for each sub category on your website, the creative costs can quickly add up. 

Like any good marketing team, you should A/B test your personalization efforts. Some ecommerce brands have found that hyper personalized email campaigns based on demographics didn’t perform as well as slightly personalized emails showcasing bestsellers and new products. The latter had a higher ROI and a much lower creative cost. 

It’s important to balance personalization with creative costs to keep customers profitable. We recommend brands start small and test, to make sure they are getting the ROI they are expecting before moving to higher levels of personalization. 

It Can Be Annoying

The point of personalization is to provide value to the customer, and most of the time customers hold it in a positive regard because of the value it provides. But sometimes marketers can miss the mark with experiences and cause annoyance. 

When personalization is annoying:

It’s Irrelevant: One off purchases. Whether it be a gift for someone else or a late night purchase you don’t remember making, continuing to receive ads and communication for a group of products that don’t represent you or your interests is annoying.

It’s Unhelpful: The point of personalization is to make life easier for the customer. If they still have to do a lot of work, personalization becomes more annoying than helpful. As an example: a store frequently sends emails and serves ads for targeted products that we love, but don’t link directly to the products. Leaving us and other customers to have to go to their homepage, search for the product, and hope we find it. This is unhelpful personalization.

When is Personalization Creepy:

Creepy personalization can leave customers feeling exposed, “How do they know this about me?” and unlike annoying personalization, it causes them to churn quickly.

There is a fine line between personalization that’s helpful and creates a “you get me” moment for a customer and one that they are creeped out by because it’s eerily close to them but not quite. 

John Berndt described this as the Creepiness Ditch, named, so marketers would be aware and not drive into it. The creepiness ditch describes when a customer’s comfort level with personalization plummets when it reaches a level of discomfort before the experience reaches full personalization. 

the Creepiness ditch
Image courtesy of The Berndt Group

Berndt explains that humans inherent discomfort with gray areas, areas where they are unable to fully classify and categorize something. With personalization, this happens in between slight personalization and fully targeted personalization when a user can’t tell if an experience is personalized or not. This is disconcerting because they don’t know what is personalized just to them, what is experienced by all, if they are receiving all the available information/options, and if they even want a personalized experience. 

Making Personalization Work for You and Your Customer 

The Sliding Scale of Creepy

It’s important to remember that creepiness is a sliding scale. As more customers expect personalization and more brands adopt good personalization strategies, personalized communications have become more acceptable and even welcome. Browse abandonment emails featuring products a customer viewed but didn’t add to their cart were once considered creepy, and now they are commonplace, a great way to get people to return to your website, and one of the higher drivers of revenue for triggered emails. Considering this, you can often get a temp on what is currently acceptable by looking at what other marketers are doing. 

Is It Explainable?

Explainability describes what you can reasonably explain knowing about a customer. If you can reasonably know something about a customer, that is acceptable information to use for personalization. How do you know if your data meets these requirements? If it’s first-party data. Data that you have collected directly from your customer’s interactions with your brand such as social media interactions, website views, clicks, and visits, purchase history, search terms, shopping quiz data. The customer understands you have this information. You can’t go wrong with first-party data.

Third-party data, however, has been the basis of most of the creepiness and why there is such a huge push for privacy in the digital space right now. If you are buying data that gives you more information about a customer than you should reasonably know, you are entering sketchy territory. Stick to your own data for personalization purposes. 

Is It Expected?

Do they expect personalization? If you are not using first-party data, they probably aren’t expecting a personalized experience from you. Creepy territory. They are also probably not expecting personalization about things they don’t want personalized – do you want all of your purchase categories showing up on the home page? Not everything adds value, make sure all of your personalization does. 

Is the Value Exchange Reasonable?

The point of personalization is to provide value to the customer and improve their experience. If they can’t see the value in a personalized experience, it becomes annoying or creepy. Customers are willing to give you their information if you provide value. Value can be excellent product recommendations, helpful links and articles, and relevant content. Don’t just sell, create a valuable experience. 

Do Customers Have Control?

Give customers control over the experience. Use a preference center on your website that allows website visitors to choose how they would like their experience personalized, or to opt out of personalization altogether. If you don’t have a preference center set up, you can simply do this with the sign-up form on your website. On Vuori Clothing’s email sign up form they have 3 options for personalization preferences: Men’s, Women’s, and I Want It All. Allowing the customer control increases value.

personalization preference center Vuori

Wrapping It All Up

Customers want and expect personalized experiences from brands these days. To keep your communications out of creepy territory, only use first-party data when personalizing experiences. Shoot for quality and not quantity, brands often enter creepiness territory when they try to personalize too much at once. Start small and allow your customers control over the level of personalization. 

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The RAEK Team

RAEK was built by a group of digital marketers on a mission to help small businesses grow and easily utilize their first-party customer data.