What is the Right Level of Personalization for Brands?


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Personalization is a weighty concept that carries the responsibility of making mass marketing feel individualized. Achieving this is no easy task. In a world teeming with countless data points, digital signals, modeling, and performance reports, it is imperative to establish genuine connections, elicit real emotions, and truly engage with the audience. Modern consumers not only expect brands to claim, “I know you,” but also demand concrete evidence in every interaction. We are well aware of the value inherent in the data we willingly provide during our online activities.

In an era where customer loyalty becomes increasingly elusive, cultivating a personal and intimate relationship with customers has become a distinguishing factor for brands. Consumers anticipate brands to utilize their data and preferences astutely to deliver value, surprise, and delight. According to Twilio Segment’s “The State of Personalization Report 2022,” 62% of consumers would abandon brand loyalty if their experiences lacked personalization, while 49% would become repeat customers if personalization were offered.

While many brands have long mastered the art of personalization, the landscape has grown more intricate due to heightened consumer concerns regarding privacy. Although certain companies fear losing their brand identity through excessive personalization, the primary issue lies in the erosion of consumer trust. When executed poorly, personalized brand experiences can leave consumers feeling uncomfortable, unnerved, or uneasy.

Nevertheless, when done right, personalized brand experiences have the potential to enhance customer satisfaction, foster loyalty, and stimulate advocacy. A successful personalization strategy involves timely and contextually relevant delivery, utilization of willingly shared consumer information, contextual understanding of the personalized moment, and surprising consumers with the joy of the unexpected.

The Hurdle of Personalization

Personalization, based on personal data shared by consumers with the understanding that it will be used as intended, leads to improved service without unwelcome surprises.

Problems arise when brands appear in inappropriate contexts and at inopportune moments. For instance, someone seeking to buy shoes online would not appreciate a healthcare brand reminding them about their hemorrhoids. Furthermore, one can only imagine the impact if such an advertisement were to pop up during a Super Bowl party in their living room. Strategic use of consumer data is imperative to prevent a breach of trust and subsequent loss of customers.

Let’s be frank: Personalization can sometimes venture into overly intimate territory. While humans desire recognition, we also cherish our privacy. If brands personalize ads based on information consumers haven’t explicitly shared, doubts may arise regarding the trustworthiness of the brand. There is a vast difference between receiving targeted ads for chocolate on your phone after browsing a flower website and receiving the same ad after discussing your plans for a romantic evening. The former feels consensual since most people understand that their clicks are tracked while browsing the web. However, the latter can feel intrusive, leaving customers wondering if their private phone conversations were somehow eavesdropped upon.

Current personalization practices by brands also run the risk of perpetuating demographic stereotypes. Sometimes, brands go overboard with personalization, relying excessively on observed patterns and behaviors, thereby pigeonholing consumers into specific “types” of people. What if there is more to that 50-year-old mom down the street than what her Google Search history reveals? What if your personalization tactics inadvertently limit her in some way? Brands should avoid boxing people in or making assumptions about their decision-making. Human behavior is often unpredictable and irrational.

Strategies for Respecting Boundaries and Personalizing with a People-First Approach

The last thing a brand should do is alienate customers while attempting to make them feel acknowledged. To avoid being perceived as creepy, making detrimental ad placement errors, and overdoing personalization, consider incorporating the following modern marketing strategies.

  1. Develop a Personalization Index for Different Channels

Establishing a system for determining when and where to deliver personalized ads is crucial. We recommend implementing scenario planning, creating a playbook to swiftly assess the signals conveyed by consumers’ behaviors and actions. What is the consumer explicitly requesting, and what needs to be delivered? Based on this information, evaluate the level of potential discomfort while deciding on the appropriate timing and placement for the ad.

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Developing such personalization indexes can be challenging, so involving an agency specialized in people-centric strategies and customer journey work could be beneficial. Such an agency can help establish a system for determining which scenarios your brand should engage in. Additionally, they can assist with data analysis, aligning business objectives, mapping journey moments and touchpoints, continuous testing, monitoring, and optimization.

  1. Examine Privacy Best Practices in Other Countries

Possessing consumer information doesn’t mean it must all be utilized. Many consumers are aware that brands track them, but they also have an understanding of what this entails and what they find comfortable. Consider exploring the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for insights into personalization while safeguarding your brand reputation. While these privacy laws are specific to Europe, many U.S. companies selling in Europe adhere to these regulations within the United States due to their efficacy. It is better to exercise discretion when delivering ads rather than risk damaging your reputation by coming across as intrusive. Under the GDPR, companies must clearly communicate what information they request from consumers and how they intend to use it. This two-way transparency fosters trust and restores equilibrium in the relationship.

  1. Strive to Surprise and Delight

Brands must recognize that customers are multifaceted and evolve over time. As mentioned earlier, many brands fall into the trap of neatly categorizing customers based on their past preferences. To successfully personalize in 2023, brands must abandon the concept of rigid personas. Instead, focus on customers’ actions and behaviors. Embrace customers as individuals and offer them experiences that defy models or stereotypes. Learn more about their preferences organically by observing their reactions to new content.

Spotify provides an excellent example of a brand that understands human preferences are in constant flux. While it suggests songs based on past choices, it also curates playlists that differ drastically from a consumer’s typical selection, encouraging exploration and growth. By adopting this approach, Spotify continues to learn more about its consumers, and consumers gain deeper insights into their own preferences. Never assume you already know your audience. Utilize available tools to test new ideas, suggest novel content, and demonstrate genuine care for who they truly are, beyond any predefined categories.

Implementing personalization successfully requires empathy and the ability to step into consumers’ shoes. Like any friendship, there are boundaries between brands and consumers, and crossing those lines can create a divide. Personalization in 2023 demands more effort than ever before. However, with the right approach, you can avoid overstepping boundaries and maintain strong connections with your audience.

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