Personalization – the digital tight rope

Friday 05th, August 2016

private photoWhen is it personal? When does it stop being private?

Personalization in marketing is like walking on a digital tight rope. You don’t personalize and your customers feel alienated. One step too far and they say it is an invasion of privacy!

Personalization in marketing is all about finding out (through data) about the customer, and based on this information, engaging with him in a meaningful way.  You need to know your customers – almost better than they know themselves! This means getting all the big guns out – you study Psychology, peer into analytics, analyze personas, scrutinize customer journey mapping – use just about any tool or tactic you possibly can to know what they would be interested in and when they would be looking for it.

In today’s crowded and noisy marketplace, personalization can be the key differentiator that can make or break a business – whether it is about offering a great customer experience at a brick and mortar store, or giving him content that is tailored to suit a customer’s taste. Done right, email will no longer be just spam (even if it had been addressed to him by name) but relevant engaging content – and banners on websites will be a reflection of products that a customer is truly interested in.

Amazon takes personalization to a whole different level – a person goes online and buys something on Amazon.com. The next time he signs in, he sees a homepage on Amazon that has been personalized to suit his tastes. Apart from the many things that they would draw your attention to, there is a list of things under “related to items you have viewed” or “based on your browsing history”. And when you look at something specific like, for instance a Panasonic Hair drier, Amazon makes recommendations to you – “people who looked at this, also looked at” or “what other items do customers buy after viewing this item?”

Beacons and location-based marketing are facilitated by the ubiquitous mobile phone – you can actually tell where a customer is and send him relevant messages. Geo-fencing is a form of location-based marketing where a section on a map is chosen as the target area and the people within that are sent offers, push notifications and other kinds of communication.

Beacons send small packets of information, from distances of between two inches to about 50 meters depending on the environment. When a smartphone comes into range, the beacon’s signal triggers content from either a local database or cloud-based storage. The smartphone user will then see a notification on their home screen saying a discount, reward incentive or contextual suggestion is near by – even if the phone is locked. Beacons are gaining a lot of traction with retailers or brands because it gives them the opportunity to communicate directly with shoppers not just at a store level but in an aisle or even at a fixture.

When done right, customers are happy with the kind of convenience that this brings to them – as location-based marketing addresses issues that they are concerned about right at that minute. But it is so easy to make a mistake and lose a customer – just like that! Because crossing the line even a little bit becomes a little too much for most people.

A good example is what happened with Target – Target was tracking the purchases of its customers and decided to co-relate a customer’s pregnancy stage based on her purchases! That quickly slipped into the realm of all kinds of wrong. Every customer at Target has a Guest ID number that is tied to their credit card, name, or email address. This stores all kinds of information about them – a list of things they had bought, their demographics, etc.  They sifted and analyzed all this data about their customers and were able to track the stages of pregnancy of a certain group of women (who were pregnant!) Based on this, they sent promotional literature – coupons, etc. for products that would be relevant to them at a particular time!

This made an angry father apparently storm into a Target store demanding to know why they were sending his high school daughter promotional literature about diapers!

Long story short – it just creeped everyone out. They hastily changed their strategy and were back!

As marketers and businesses trying to engage with and connect with customers, it is very important to remember that there are boundaries that need to be strictly adhered to.

People would welcome things like automatic discounts at checkout for loyalty points or coupons. They would love real time promos and offers and even appreciate suggestions for further purchases. But if a retailer starts to tell a customer that he is going way beyond his budget or if was buying something that was outside his diet restrictions, or if a store person called a customer by name as he enters a store – that can just put people off!

It is true that customers like the personal touch and even expect it. But it is a fine line between warmly personal and downright creepy. And not balancing the personalization game right, would be a huge digital marketing mistake that you would make!

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