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Personalisation: How to keep your company from becoming creepy

11th Sep 2014
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How much personalisation is too much? With increasingly sophisticated technology and growing access to customer data enabling brands to provide a highly personalised experience, it’s a question that marketers are having to ask themselves. And yet the answer can be quite elusive.

Clearly most customers want marketing and service that is tailored to them. But at the same time, privacy is an increasing concern for consumers, and organisations must be sensitive to communications that could be deemed too intrusive.

Even those at the leading edge of personalisation are faced with the dilemma of deciding when ‘personal’ becomes ‘creepy’. And the tricky thing is that customer reactions can vary on a case by case basis. So how far is too far?

"Companies are looking at what I’m searching for, what ads I click on, what purchases I have made in the past, my credit rating, what print magazines I subscribe to, and there’s a point where you think 'if you reach into my bank account and my medical records then I’m going to be upset!'" says Jim Sterne, founder of the Digital Analytics Association. "Clearly, somewhere there is a line that should not be crossed."

And there are many ways in which personalisation can become disturbing for customers.

“Personalisation can be creepy when it isn’t relevant,” suggests Sandra McDill, managing partner at iProspect. “I don’t mind my supermarket knowing my name, knowing where I live and my favourite brand of beans but it would be creepy if they knew I had just been to the dentist, or I was currently in the bath. First party data means that brands can access a wealth of information about an individual that will help them to position the best products and services to them, but avoiding the creepy factor is about being reasonable with the information you choose to act upon.

“When people willingly give data up, such as posting on Facebook that they have just moved to London, it would be reasonable for the supermarket to market them their nearest store. Creepy and insensitive would be presenting meals for one based on someone recently breaking up from a relationship. Good personalisation should be helpful and honest and leave the consumer feeling positive about the brand, and willing to continue to provide data that will enhance their overall experience.”

Steve Shaw, head of digital at Branded3, adds: “Some businesses have fallen into the trap of becoming creepy through personalisation by using profiling and intent, but not in a clear or concise and accurate manner. These instances usually occur when a single piece of information or an action that the customer has given has been used to deliver focussed messaging.

“An example of this is using a customer’s location to provide targeted marketing, but without the customer knowing how you came to know their location. Most digital-savvy customers are aware that this kind of location information can be gained from their mobile device,  IP addresses, browser settings - and more and are aware that this is being shared by default. However, for the mass-market, this awareness isn’t as deep and therefore there becomes a fear of how the digital marketers ‘found out’ this information leading to it being creepy or Big Brother-like- and this instils immediate distrust. “

Crossing the line?

But the big challenge is that there is no clear line over which it is inappropriate to cross. Different companies in different sectors will be able to appropriately deliver varying levels of personalisation, while customers will each have a different idea about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate.

“There is a line to be found between being personal and appearing creepy.  For each brand this will be different based on their audience and the brand personality; for some brands showing the products abandoned in an abandoned basket email may be viewed as too personal by their consumers, whilst for others it won’t be an issue at all,” says Katharine Hulls, VP of marketing at Celebrus Technologies.

“This should be taken to an individual consumer level as well by giving individual customers the opportunity to dictate exactly what data they want collected. This is especially the case if the brand passes the data to a third party; people feel OK with their chosen brands knowing about their behaviours and preferences and using that data carefully but having another brand know the same is entirely different. “

So how can organisations ensure that they stay the right side of the line?

Forrester’s recent report ‘Digital creepiness: How not to spook your customers’ provides six tips on how to toe the line between offering a personalised digital experience and not intruding too far into its customer’s private life.

  • Comply with privacy laws. This may seem obvious, but protecting vast amounts of customer data can be a herculean task for many organisations. Failure to do so can create privacy infringements, and, in the digital space, it’s more important than ever that companies are aware of the data protection guidelines across different countries.  
  • Protect customer data with a zero trust policy. With hacked customer data such a common occurrence among large and small organisations of all types, you wonder whether it’s possible to guarantee security to customers when they sign up to your products. But Forrester states firms “must implement a zero trust policy where the data is no longer considered ‘secure’ just because it is behind a firewall”, if they are ever to get close to protecting customer data sufficiently.   
  • Implement a multidimensional customer data management platform. With a multitude of sources for data, ranging from social media to mobile and Internet of Things sensors, is it acceptable to have the traditional 360-degree view of the customer? Forrester thinks not, suggesting that firms must “capture, store, analyse, and use a plethora of data from new sources to create a multidimensional view of customer”, if they want to offer a more believable personalised experience.
  • Develop granular preference controls. ‘Preference panels’ are playing an increasingly important part of the mobile app and website experience, as customers demand a more customisable experience from brands. Forrester suggests this will only increase, as the option gives a more transparent and trusting element to a business, as customers can choose at a granular level how much personalisation they are comfortable with.
  • A/B test your designs. It makes sense to determine whether customers are comfortable with the features of your digital experience by setting up controlled experiments to measure how frequently real customers are engaged. A/B testing is often the common denominator, however Forrester warns of “individual customers may rate differently on the creepiness scale”; suggesting that finding out what the scales of personalisation are before implementing something can be priceless.   
  • Match versions to predicted creepiness tolerance. In some circumstances, it might make sense to make multiple versions of a digital experience, be it an app or a website, to cater for the different tolerance levels of your customers. Forrester suggests predictive analytics tools, stating that “predictive analytics can be used to predict individual creepiness ratings for each of your customers. Once you have scores, you can use them to automatically adjust the experience”.

Further advice

“Transparency of customer profiling is the key to ensuring that the process doesn’t become creepy,” advises Shaw. “A clear explanation of why the experience will be tailored and how this can reduce the noise around the customer objectives can be a welcome message.

“A guide to not becoming creepy revolves around trust, relevancy and customer intent. When requesting customer information via data capture, it should be clear how that data will be used. A great example of this personalisation can be seen once again on, where there are clickable links for “Why recommended?” which shows what rules are in use and what activity has triggered the personalisation.

“Like the method of avoiding personalisation ‘dead ends’, offering the customer the ability to view, change, add-to and exclude information that is currently being used to personalise content can help deliver trust and transparency. Allow a customer to be in control of building their own profile, will benefit and support the personalisation process.

“Everyone has at some point received non relevant mass-market communications and by having the choice to either stop or to choose the topics of choice, your business will deliver higher results.”

Hulls adds: “Organisations should make the offers and content ‘personalised’ but not too clearly personal – you don’t need to show every single product that a customer has browsed on your website in a personalised promotional email; pick one or two, or show products from the category that customers have viewed the most frequently. Be somewhat careful with predictive analytics: their behaviour today is not necessarily a predictor of future behaviours or requirements. Everyone has heard about the Target pregnancy case: don’t be the next.

“Alongside the suggestions above, always ensure the benefit is stronger than any potential negative perception of use of the data; customers still might not forgive you but they will in a more of a mindset to do so if they feel you’re trying hard to engage and entice them for the right reasons.”

Ultimately, the key to successful personalisation is customer knowledge – and this applies just as much to their preferences for tailored communications as it does to their product preferences.

“The most important part of personalisation is to understand how your customers want to interact with the brand before engaging,” adds Ian Stockley, MD of Indicia. “For example, personalised interactions too close to each other could come across as very invasive for some customers. Marketers need to judge interactions by using the appropriate insight to ensure the brand is talking with customers on their terms. It is also important for the brand to understand which pieces of information customers are happy to share and what is considered private. This way they can ensure that personalised communications never cross the line and come across as intrusive.” 

Graeme Collins, head of marketing, EMEA at RichRelevance, concludes: “Privacy concerns are always going to be a barrier for retailers. The more information you have, the more accurate and helpful your personalised service will be. That said, consumers remain fiercely protective of their personal data. Now more than ever, many of them view attempts to elicit it as suspicious.

“As a retailer, your primary concern should be to get consumers on board. You need to be transparent about what you are doing and why. Ask for permission in all instances and be confident and clear about the benefits of involvement. The more receptive your consumers are, the more effective your personalisation strategy will be.”

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