3 Ways Marketers Can Personalize Communications Without Being Creepy

A good rule of thumb: Treat users like an acquaintance you don't want to make uncomfortable

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When the news broke that data firm Cambridge Analytica surreptitiously harvested and maliciously employed the Facebook data of millions of users, we all began asking ourselves how this was even possible, what this meant for Facebook and, more broadly, whether we should be sharing our data so readily. Though some people reacted wanting to #DeleteFacebook, life went back to normal pretty quickly, and it’s clear that big data isn’t going anywhere.

The truth is that we consumers have somewhat accepted that properly collecting and smartly employing data is the fuel that powers our accelerating world. Yes, we protest sometimes, and regulations such as GDPR are appearing to provide a basic level of information and protection to users. However, we have essentially all agreed to live with this new status quo, in the initial spirit of a free internet and the vague promise of a better “customer experience.” Brands have long understood that the futures of their businesses rely on successfully leveraging the data they have on us, together with the data they purchase from their tech giant frenemies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.).

But here is a piece of advice for brands: Data can help you, but don’t overdo it simply because it’s there. It is not about data protection, as our short collective memory on the Cambridge Analytica fiasco shows. It’s simply about not creeping your users out.

In the quest for personalization (the ultimate goal of many marketing and advertising efforts), many brands focus too heavily on ultra-personalizing communications by accessing the unwieldy amount of direct and indirect information that they have on us. These brands, for lack of a better word, quickly veer into a “creep” territory.

Think of it this way: Imagine you’re at a party and a stranger strikes up a conversation. They seem friendly enough, but soon start mentioning your specific interests, like movies, music and sports teams. Probably just a coincidence, right? Your new best friend! However, what if the stranger starts getting way too specific about your past activities? You’d probably feel uncomfortable and begin wondering how this stranger knew all of that. Or, imagine a different scenario. Another stranger says, without preamble, “I know your best friend did a marathon last week, and you admire her for that. I bet you’d like to look at these Nike running shoes.” You’d be confused, concerned and would probably step away.

Many brands focus too heavily on ultra-personalizing communications by accessing the unwieldy amount of direct and indirect information that they have on us.

We need to start thinking of personalization along the lines of a relationship. In a normal friendship, you gradually learn about another person, their interests, their likes and dislikes, their passions and quirks, their background and goals. Brands need to maintain that mindset of building an honest, friendly relationship over time. In our digital age, however, that slow, voluntary sharing of information can be skipped too easily. Instead of taking a unilateral (and probably inappropriate) decision on the level of intimacy and personalization, brands should use technology to build that gradually by carefully reading the signals from each individual. Artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies have changed the game in data analysis, but the power of AI shouldn’t be unleashed on customers without consideration. Instead, it should be used to emulate the way humans actually interact.

With this in mind, there are a few key strategies that brands can use to prudently build strong, meaningful relationships with their customers.

Include a communication profile in your database 

Consider adding a new layer to all of the dimensions you employ to know your users: how they like to be spoken to. Some people are happy if you start strong while some people will want to take it slow. Just because two users have the same purchasing behavior or disposable income doesn’t mean they like to be addressed in the same way. The data you currently have on them is incomplete and treats users like numbers in a database instead of actual human beings with a set of emotions.

Use the signals you already have

Thanks to GDPR and some new level of awareness after the Facebook scandal, more users have started to fill in their data protection settings. Others have a specific way of communicating or interacting on social networks that can also be a hint. Utilize those known signals from users to think about different communication strategies. If you see a person on their own in the corner of a room at a party, would you really expect that person to respond to the same tone of voice as the one dancing on the table?

Keep listening to them

As with any relationship, initial impressions can be wrong. Make it a two-way conversation. Keep finding ways to read their reactions to your communication intensity, through either trial and error (as humans do) or by creating opportunities for them to willingly choose their style.

All of the above is possible with today’s technology and in particular with artificial intelligence. Brands and marketers have immense opportunities to employ these technologies and create better customer experiences (and consequently trust) at scale. As Facebook painfully experienced, the alternative of leveraging data to quickly try to manipulate customers will simply backfire. It is not that hard: People want to be treated like people, and brands and marketers should always remember that when thinking about the long-term return of their data investment.