How to do Personalization Without Being Creepy

Chances are, you’ve already had a discussion or two at work regarding ‘personalization’. If nothing else, you’ve probably heard of the perks: The Boston Consulting Group recently announced that brands that integrate digital tools and data to create personalized experiences benefit from an increase in revenues from between 6% and 10%, which is two to three times faster than brands that don’t.  Ultimately, any discussion around personalization always gets back to cutting through marketing noise to increase engagement, conversion rates and ROI.

Many marketers have at least dabelled in personalization – especially web personalization, which has a low barrier to entry and high returns. And many are thinking of scaling up. That’s why we think it’s important to bring up a dilemma – one that can have a significant impact on brand image. While consumers expect ultra-relevant experiences, they’re increasingly concerned about privacy.  Brands that don’t respect these concerns then get labelled as ‘creepy’ – and nobody wants that!

Privacy Concerns on the Rise

In the last few years, consumer anxiety surrounding online data protection and privacy has noticeably increased. A 2016 study by TRUSTe and the National Cyber Security Alliance found that, “more Americans are worried about their data privacy than they are about losing their main source of income.” The Pew Research Center likewise found in their 2016 survey of 1,040 adults that the percentage of people that trust that institutions will responsibly use their online data has been slipping. This includes “companies or retailers they do business with, as well as social media sites.”

Roughly half of Americans do not trust the federal government or social media sites to protect their data
Source: Pew Research Center

Finally, Consumer Reports noticed a sizeable uptick in the last year alone, reporting in 2017 that 70% – up from 65% the year before –  of Americans lack confidence that their personal data is private and safe from distribution without their knowledge.

Consumer reports data concerns
Source: Consumer Reports

Here’s the rub: personalization strategies – as their name implies – rely on consumers’ personal data: depending on the scope, this could be anything from web browsing habits and purchase history to gender and birthdate to location tracking data. And marketers admit that, without this kind of reliable info, any kind of meaningful personalization becomes much more difficult.

The irony is, with all of these privacy concerns in the background, many consumers increasingly expect more relevant and seamless experiences with brands.

For example, a Bond brand loyalty report was recently able to correlate satisfaction with loyalty programs’ personalization and satisfaction with a loyalty program overall.

Personalization and brand loyalty
Source: The 2016 Bond Loyalty Report

For businesses, this satisfaction translates to increased profits. Even back in 2014, companies were reporting high ROI impact for personalization tactics that rely on purchase history, user preference and web browsing data.

Personalization data types used and impact on ROI
Source: Marketing Charts

So how can marketers make use of data for more relevant consumer experiences while still respecting their privacy concerns?

Crossing the Line: The Creep Factor

If you ask ‘what does privacy mean for you?’ you’ll find that privacy is an individual thing, and it is different for every person […] Some people say, ‘give me all the target ads possible, because that will give me the best possible offer.’ While other people will say ‘I don’t want to be tracked that much, please turn it off.’

– TRUSTe CEO Chris Babel, CBS interview 2016

Brands that don’t respect consumer’s boundaries end up being labelled as ‘creepy’ – the evil twin of ‘relevant’.  Everyone’s heard of the father who angrily called up Target after they sent his daughter ads for prenatal products, only to find out the company algorithms had accurately deduced her pregnancy. But there are plenty of other examples of admittedly creepy personalization, from facial recognition technology to retargeting ads that get a bit too specific. Just listen to the consumers below talking about all the different tactics that routinely creep them out:

A quick search on social media will also reveal that consumers aren’t shy about calling out brands that don’t know where the line is. Note: we’ve blurred their names and faces so that, well…we’re not being creepy!

Creepy personalization tweet

More creepy tweets

So what can businesses do to make sure they toe the line between relevant and creepy and don’t end up in the stocks at high noon?

Tips on How to do Personalization Without Being Creepy

Be transparent

This one has become increasingly important, even making it to TrendWatching’s 2018 list. We all know about declaring the use of cookies and our responsibility to do so.  Explaining why we do so – in plain English – and the interest for the web user is the next small step in achieving 100% transparency. And it doesn’t have to be a dry little banner, either. I particularly love how The Next Web uses their cookie policy declaration as a way to make visitors chuckle, as well as explain exactly how they use their data:

Cookie policy TNW
Image Source: TNW

Give consumers a choice

As much as possible, allow your users to clearly ‘opt-in’ and ‘opt-out’ of personal communication with your brand. This could include the usual ‘use of cookies’ communication – and especially the use of location-based tracking – but should also apply to things like (personalized) newsletters, (personalized) text messages, (personalized) push notifications…the more someone remembers giving you permission to engage with them, the less likely they are to be unpleasantly surprised when and if you personalize that communication.

Deliveroo personalization
Many on-demand apps rely on location-tracking data – both from clients and their own employees – to make their business viable. Reminding consumers that their data is being used to make their experience with the brand as convenient as possible can nip any privacy concerns in the bud.

Know your audience

Whether your audience feels you’re bordering on creepy will probably depend a lot on their age and comfort level with digital technology. You’ve most likely got a few anecdotes of your own, but generally speaking, ‘non digital natives’ tend to prefer a lighter touch when it comes to personalization, while younger generations are much more at ease.  Or, as Retail Touchpoints put it: “In addition to the right pricing, Gen Z wants a personalized experience, and aren’t too worried about privacy.”

Take context into account

[…]Delta is exploring where the creepy factor lies in all this customer insight. For example, should a flight attendant wish you a happy birthday? What about appearing with a bloody mary because you ordered the drink on nine of your last 10 flights? What if you’re sitting beside your boss this time? 

– Justin Bachman, Bloomberg Technology 2017

When designing personalization campaigns, put yourself in the consumer’s shoes. Do you really want that drink on the hypothetical Delta flight? What about a retargeting ad for extra strong deodorant following you around the internet? We didn’t think so. Take into account about how public or private each channel of personalized communication is, how specific your messaging is, and if it might come off as invasive or inappropriate. There’s a time and a place for everything.

retargeting personalization
Source: Marketoonist

Start small

You don’t have to launch into a complex, multi-channel personalization extravaganza if you’re just starting out. A few well-crafted website personalization campaigns can go a long way in boosting key conversion rates, as our clients well know. Get your feet wet with personalization and find the right tone for your different audiences before deciding to scale up.

Photobox personalization
Our client Photobox saw a 14% increase in account sign ups…just by personalizing their homepage for new vs returning visitors.

Test and learn

At the end of the day, the only way to really know if your personalization campaign is creeping your audience out is to test it.  If you can, run an A/B test on different messages in order to hit just the right tone. Monitor your social networks for any feedback, positive or negative, and keep track of your campaign’s KPIs to make sure you’re getting the results you want.

Robin Nichols

Robin is a Content Marketing Manager at AB Tasty. Interested in the crossroads of technology and culture, her aim is to produce practical, on point content to help marketers of all stripes improve their conversion rates.

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