Move over personalisation – now it’s time for individualisation

25th Jul 2016
Move over personalisation – now it’s time for individualisation
‘Individualisation’ or ‘individualised marketing’ is one of the popular marketing buzz phrases doing the rounds currently. While the term is still often used interchangeably with personalisation, I think there are some important differences. So what are those differences, and what does the rise of individualisation mean for companies and marketers?

First came personalisation

By now we’re all pretty familiar with personalisation. It’s a major step forward from ‘mass marketing’, where just about everybody receives the same marketing message, regardless of who they are. For a long time now, smart marketers have been segmenting their customer/prospect base using demographics and other characteristics. This approach allows you to create marketing offers that will have greater appeal for specific groups of people. Most marketers will agree that personalisation generally performs better, because the people you target are more likely to notice and engage with your marketing (for example, personalised emails and ads get more opens and click-throughs) and ultimately buy more from you.

Then came individualisation

When we talk about ‘individualisation’ we’re taking it a step further. We’re no longer targeting groups of people based on shared characteristics. We are addressing a ‘segment of one’: a single individual. New technologies now make it possible to gather and act upon intimate, granular knowledge of each person, in a highly automated and low-cost way. The aim is to deliver the elusive ‘personal touch’ of yesteryear, but within a largely digital environment, and without employing an army of people to make it happen.

It’s a highly interactive and dynamic approach informed by a real-time analysis of the behaviour and characteristics of individuals (gathered from multiple touchpoints), all used to create and deliver unique experiences tailored (often in the moment) to the preferences of each person.

Individualisation technologies

Individualisation is made possible by five types of technology that give us new ways of understanding and responding to customers:

  1. Customer behaviour tracking allows marketers to interpret and respond to the online 'vapour trail' we all leave behind on our digital devices. For example, a person has put something in a basket but didn't buy...regularly accesses her emails at midnight...responds to SMS messages about product x but not product y…clicks on a Facebook ad on her smartphone at 5.45pm while at location z. These provide the cues that can be used to trigger individualised marketing activities, such as emailing someone who has abandoned a product purchase with a discounted offer.
  2. A variety of automation techniques that make it less costly to deliver a tailored experience, such as individual websites or microsites that use dynamic content to respond to the customer's behaviour. Another neat example is the ATM that remembers your habits – say you usually take out £50 and want a printed receipt with it – and automatically gives you this as an option when you enter your pin.
  3. Advanced data analytics, powerful enough to analyse huge volumes of data (anything from millions of online transactions, social media conversations, to location data and weather information) to uncover hidden patterns, correlations, trends and customer preferences.
  4. Artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to analyse and predict behaviour, make decisions, and create responses. A good example might be an app from a health and nutrition company that monitors your activity, rest and sleep patterns and uses this information to provide daily advice and motivational messages tailored just for you, including product and meal suggestions.
  5. Chatbots or automated messaging systems can manage thousands of individual conversations simultaneously, handing them off to a human at the point when it runs out of answers or a more detailed response is needed.

Individualisation: the implications for marketers

1.            Customers will expect you to provide an individual experience

As marketers we need to be aware that many people have now tasted better, more individual customer experiences and have begun to expect them. We risk losing customers if we cannot meet that demand.

Mobile technology has a lot to do with setting our expectations. Many people are aware that through the mobile devices they carry around with them every day they’re giving companies access to huge amounts of personal information. Customer activity with websites, apps, email, text, social media, online ads, together with location tracking, creates a highly detailed picture of people’s daily routines, preferences and interests – and there’s a growing expectation that brands should be able to act on it.  Mobile phones are very personal: we feed them with a wealth of information about our lives, habits, preferences and activities. So when we receive ill-timed or unsuitable marketing offers from companies that do not seem in sync with our lives, it can grate even more. 

2.            React, but don’t be reactive

Individualised marketing is essentially ‘bottom up’ and responsive. You can adjust your marketing approach on the fly, reacting dynamically to real-time events and customer behaviour. That’s a great asset but it also requires discipline, because marketing that's only done 'on the hoof' is not really marketing at all. You still also need a ‘top down’ approach, too: a sound marketing strategy that drives everything else, and ensures that all those thousands, or even millions, of individualised marketing activities are part of one coherent whole.

Technology can give you new customer insights, and the power to automate and scale your marketing operations, but the fundamentals remain the same as they always were. Your total offer must meet customer needs and build customer satisfaction. Basics like good products, prompt delivery, strong brand values and knowledgeable support staff are a key part of the mix.  

3.            Never underestimate the dangers of getting things wrong

The more personal (individual!) you try to be, the greater the scope for gaffes. If you speculate that everyone behaving in a certain way has a certain need or will be receptive to your offer and you present it to them in a very 'individual' way, then you run the risk of being intrusive (I already find it a little creepy when a holiday I have just been looking at online pops up in my Facebook feed), or just getting it plain wrong (just because I looked at something once doesn't mean I’m still interested; in fact, it might even have been another member of my family who borrowed my device to look at that content ). A lot of the technology behind individualisation, such as AI, is still in its infancy and it’s certainly not error-proof.

Look at the outrage caused by the Labour party’s failed attempt at very basic ‘personalisation’, when they inadvertently sent out an email to 'Dear Firstname' instead of the named individuals. How much more of a furore would there be if our attempts at indvidualisation were undermined by a system error! The stakes are that much higher. Leaving out someone’s name from an email is one thing. Misjudging people’s likes, dislikes or behaviour is quite another. People don't like to feel duped by other people trying to be clever, even less so by technology trying to be clever. Sound practice is to individualise with a ‘light touch’ and never fall into the trap of thinking you know exactly what your customers think, feel or want.

Research suggests that around nine out of ten marketers now view individualised marketing as a priority.  So don’t disregard it as just the latest buzz phrase, because it looks set to become the new normal.

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