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Personalized Marketing: The Line Between Cool and Creepy

Reading Time:7 mins November 3, 2015

In today’s world, it can often feel like we’re being watched. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to have friends who seem to telepathically know what we want for our birthday, and it’s pretty cool that most music streaming apps can formulate playlists based on music we’ve listened to in the past (consumers like to feel personally connected to their favorite brands, and especially appreciate when a business takes the time to get to know them).

On the other hand, Americans remain divided about NSA surveillance; but the majority – 54 percent – disapproves of the government’s efforts to keep tabs on citizens’ personal data. In the marketing world, retargeting can sometimes have a similar effect.

While most Internet users are now used to being shown ads for the types of items and services they’re interested in, when ads become tailored to specific products they’ve already perused, it can be kind of weird – or even invasive. No one wants to feel like Big Brother is watching, as evidenced by the 68 percent of Americans who, according to an Ipsos survey, feel uneasy about having their online activity tracked specifically for the purpose of remarketing.

As businesses and marketing agencies, how do we draw the line?

Personal vs. Intimate: Making the Distinction

There’s a difference between being personal and being intimate – and that’s where people draw the line, whether they realize it or not. CMS Wire illustrates the distinction with a sample scenario of a sales associate in a grocery store.

In the first scene, the associate notices a customer perusing gluten-free products. When the customer checks out, the associate uses what he noticed to let the customer know that some of his selections contain gluten.

This is an example of a personal interaction between customer and sales associate. In this case, the associate offers personalized information that could help the customer avoid eating something that will make him sick.

However, what if the content of the suggestion is different? For example, what if upon overhearing a customer talking to his wife about their upcoming date, the associate suggests he bring home a bouquet of flowers?

Now the sales associate has crossed the line from personal to intimate, and he no longer comes across as helpful. Instead, he’s just creepy.

Creepy Retargeting or Smart Personalized Marketing?

The distinction is fairly simple to figure out in a brick-and-mortar setting, and (we hope) it doesn’t happen terribly often. Online, however, companies tend to store enormous amounts of data to keep tabs on consumers’ personal preferences. Some of these details can be more intimate than others.

Consider, for example, a woman who used an online dieting program some time ago, who now sees ads promoting weight loss programs and products all over the Web. In an interview with The New York Times, Julie Matlin – the woman in question – said, “They are still following me around, and it makes me feel fat.” This is a real-life example of retargeting that crosses the line into intimate, insensitive territory.

This scenario illustrates the main issue with personalized marketing: Companies that fall short are, quite simply, doing it wrong. It is possible to get the best of both worlds – to retarget both sensitively and intelligently.

Advertising execs interviewed by HubSpot offer some wisdom for marketers interested in rolling out an effective, personalized campaign. Here are some highlights:

  • Understand Your Audience. Millennials who spend a lot of time online tend to be more accustomed to personalization. It’s no longer surprising to most digital natives when products they’ve looked at show up in other places, such as in their Facebook feed. However, even members of this demographic feel uneasy when an ad seems to know too much about them. For example, an ad for diapers doesn’t feel unsettling, but an ad that says, “you’re giving birth in two weeks, so buy diapers now,” is definitely creepy.
  • Be Relevant. Offering something valuable to a recipient isn’t creepy – it’s smart. For example, draw from a customer’s shopping history on your eCommerce site to recommend similar products. You don’t need to track a user’s every move to provide useful information.
  • Think Of It As a Compliment. In the real world, briefly telling a stranger you love their shoes is perfectly normal and totally welcome. Similarly, by using effective personalization, you can let someone know you get them and that you like their style.

What Else Works?

Retargeted advertising isn’t the only effective type of personalized marketing. Here are a couple of other options.

Personalized Landing Pages

You can personalize landing pages in a number of ways to enhance user experience and make your site more relevant. Location tagging is one such tactic. Use a visitor’s IP address to direct them to a location-specific landing page, which includes a reference to their hometown or region.

Landing pages can also help users find more relevant content. By tracking user habits, including which pages they visit and how long they spend on those pages, you’ll get a sense of their interests. This will help you provide suggestions for articles and blog posts, which will help keep them on your site longer and give you a better chance at conversion.

You can customize a landing page by addressing your visitor by name and following up your greeting with personalized, exclusive discount offers. You can also suggest other blog posts by using a small, unobtrusive pop-up.

Personalized Email Campaigns

Shopping cart abandonment is rampant in eCommerce. According to statistics published on CPC Strategy, almost 68 percent of shoppers abandon their carts – but those who previously abandoned their carts spend 55 percent more when remarketed to.

Shoppers who don’t convert abandon their carts for a number of reasons, which include high shipping costs, time restraints, desired items being out of stock, and others. Often, people abandon shopping carts because they’ve found a better deal by comparison shopping.

Email remarketing is a great way to pinpoint particular consumer objections and offer solutions. An effective personalized email could offer free shipping, a coupon for the desired item, or information about other special offers that might make the product more affordable or appealing. With customers for whom timing is a problem, a simple email reminder will help them remember products they may have abandoned but still want to purchase.

Final Thoughts: Pay Attention to Consumer Response

As with any marketing campaign you launch, observe how your customers respond. Generally, consumers want to tell you their thoughts, so keep tabs not only on data related to customer engagement, but also on their individual comments. If you’re not sure how they feel about a campaign, ask them with a survey or questionnaire. When you have accurate, balanced feedback from recipients, you can adjust goals and strategies as necessary.

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About The Author: Adrienne Erin

Adrienne Erin is a freelance writer with a focus on web design and online marketing. You can read more of her work by visiting her blog, Design Roast, or by following @adrienneerin on Twitter. Twitter Email

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