Personalization: How to Be Less Creepy While Doing It

In today’s world, where everything’s been tried and tested, at least marketing-wise, brands are trying to reinvent themselves all the time, in order to stand out.

And seeing as all’s been said and done, marketers rely on various tactics in order to be noticed, with personalization being one of the most effective, especially when it comes to most forms of marketing, from email marketing to social media marketing.

But what does personalization even mean, in a day and age when data can be accessed by companies with such ease that caused regulations like GDPR to be created?

And most importantly: how can you personalize everything for your brand, from cold email campaigns and landing page optimization efforts to social media content, spot-on suggestions and tailor-made offers, without looking like the creeper that’s been stalking prospects and peering through windows?

Let’s begin…

What Kind of Data Do You Need?

The main concern of the users – and by extension, your prospects and your customers (hopefully) – is not whether or not your business gathers data; they already know that you do.

Rather, they feel unsure and unsafe when they don’t know the kind of data you’re gathering and how you’re using it. This is more true in Europe, especially in the post-GDPR era.

So, there is no use in creating a Privacy Policy or Terms and Conditions page that will contain all the fine print – your prospects will not bother with something like that. They’ll simply just opt out of whatever it is that you’ve sent them or redirected them to.

But before you question personalization, seeing as it seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth, just check out this stat from SmarterHQ:
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The surprising thing is that, according to the same report, “86% of consumers are concerned about their data privacy”, with Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers being more worried than the younger generations.

And let me give you a personal example on that one, to prove my point:

I’m an avid researcher when it comes to two things: marketing stuff and cosmetics. The main volume of the targeted ads I see have to do with those two things. I understand how targeted ads work so I don’t really mind and I don’t find it that creepy.

My mother, who belongs to the Baby Boomer generation, loves antiques: furniture, carpets, really anything. She gets so freaked out when she sees a targeted ad, it’s almost like someone came knocking on our door with a coffee table from the early 20th century and is trying to sell it to us.

My point is: to the untrained eye, a targeted ad feels intrusive. Why? Because the recipient of the ad – in this example, my mother – doesn’t understand what cookies can do and why brands use them, so she believes that she hasn’t willingly given up any information.

So, how do you go about creating a marketing plan that’s completely transparent when it comes to data collection and protection?

You really shouldn’t start creating anything personalized by using data you’ve obtained in any way other than having asked for them in a clear manner. Just be fully transparent in what you want and why you want it.

So, let’s assume that you want to use your audience’s browsing data. There can be a little banner that will let users know what you intend to do with the data by their interaction with your site:
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This would be the perfect note to add somewhere on your page or your email and it will allow users to feel safe about giving up something personal, be it their name, email address, or the cookies the users will allow.

And make sure that the data you collect ensure that you deliver something of value to your prospects. If you need to ask for someone’s email address, then do so. But be clear on what they’re going to receive and how valuable it’s going to be for your audience.

For example, you can’t ask for a company name or for the prospect’s age when what you’re offering is a discount code or free shipping. This sounds unnecessary and unnatural. Make sure that the data you’re asking for is on par with what you’re offering.

A free case study is something that took company resources to make and should warrant the need for more data to be given up. Not to mention the fact that it’s researched and free, ergo a money-saver for the prospect.
By acquiring the right data, you can dive into the world of personalization in all types of marketing, be it landing pages, email, or social media marketing.

On social media, especially, personalized content may seem like an easy thing to do. After all, there’s all that data that people have given out willingly, be it their place of residence, their Friday night check-ins, pages they like, and so on.

That is a pool of willingly given data, which brands can leverage and incorporate into crafting their buyer personas, for which they’ll be creating content… You get the gist.

And since that data has been given out willingly, as people love to share what they like and dislike, it surely can and will be used to deliver personalized content.

But how easy it to create that content? And in a society with a growing need for social media personalization and tailor-made, “especially-for-you” type of content, what is ethical to use?

The Proverbial Straw

How much is too much? And what can you do to minimize the possibility of being very creepy when it comes to something as subjective as privacy?

I think that most of us marketers, data analysts, and even people that don’t understand how data works when it comes to personalization – like my previously mentioned mother – have heard the case of the father who received ads from Target that had to do with prenatal products and were addressed to his daughter, only to find out that his daughter was, indeed, pregnant.

Who wouldn’t feel like someone was stalking them if they had their data used in such a way?

Just start small and build your way upwards, if you can help it. You don’t need too much information to craft the perfectly personalized message. All you need to do is study your audience and offer the value I mentioned before.

For starters, you surely have got a database that can help you with determining some key parameters you’ll later use, in order to create your ideal customer – or buyer persona, marketing persona, Bob, call it what you will!

That ideal customer will encompass everything your brand needs to see in a customer, thus shaping your actual customers’ shopping habits.

It’s only logical, after all. Let’s assume that you’re selling surfboards. Your ideal customer is athletic, probably young, and lives by the sea. What does that mean? That personalization will start with these things in mind.

Now, let’s say that you’re going to target all the people in your mailing list who live by the sea. 

By sending out a targeted email campaign, let’s say, with a discount code on surfboards, you’re not only speaking to the heart of your ideal customers, you’re also targeting people who have some of the persona characteristics and might think: “Hey, maybe I need that surfboard. I can gift it/I can start surfing/It would be a nice addition to my apartment’s decoration.”

You can also gather data that’ll target customers by crafting a customer feedback strategy and using surveys as a part of it. This will give you all the details you need, without having to explain the reasons why you need sensitive data because you really don’t.
But customer feedback and marketing personas are two classic marketing tactics that will change completely in the near future. 

Marketing personas are created by marketers after copious amounts of research and many hours brainstorming and analyzing customer behavior data in a company’s database. This is not something that will continue happening though.

Machine-learning and AI will slowly but surely take over that very important aspect of the work of a marketer. With AI-powered solutions like audience analysis Socialbakers, marketing personas are already run by automation. However, the parameters should still be set by a marketer.

This practice creates marketing personas that won’t just be theoretical but more lively and relatable. By using AI, there is a limited risk of human error. And this is not the only reason AI will take over marketing personas.

AI can distinguish patterns in the data in a quicker and more precise manner than the best data analyst, helping marketers create personalized content that will appeal to more people and feel more life-like.

This is possible because AI can incorporate behaviors, purchases, social media likes and shares, connections, and more into data use and, ultimately, create just the thing for any brand’s audience.

This will be true for all marketing channels as well, from social media posts that need to be tailor-made without violating GDPR, up to email marketing and digital advertising.

However, you need to use all the data your prospects gave out willingly and combine them – either by analyzing or through the use of AI – in order to build those marketing personas that will help you out.

Creepy Things to Avoid and Nice Things to Do

Creepy personalization tactics and shady means to ask for data will inevitably lower your prospects’ desire to interact with you, meaning buh-bye engagement, brand recognition, and going viral.

That’s why it’s so important to get personalization right. If you please your audience and bring the value they are looking for, they are far more likely to appreciate your personalization efforts.
Not to mention the things you’ll need to do to regain your prospects’ trust.

And with more than 50% of consumers thinking that borderline creepy personalization is reason enough for them to stop purchasing from a brand and get the word around about how (they assume) their data is used, resulting in the exact polar opposite of the referral marketing definition!

Things to Avoid:

According to the previously mentioned SmarterHQ report, one of the creepiest things on the list would be push notifications, a tactic that ranked as 74% creepier than the other channels used.
Email marketing ranked as the most desired way to keep in touch, by the way, followed closely by social media. 

This highlights the need for hyper-personalized content that will be appropriate without feeling like someone was watching the prospect, especially if we’re talking about brands that do heavy community management and keep in touch with their customers through social media, like Wendy’s does, for example.

But why do push notifications up the creep factor like that? Aren’t they supposed to be helpful?
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The key phrase in the statement above is “users want to act on”. There’s a fine line between useful and creepy, so when you’re sending a geolocation notification, for example, make sure that you don’t sound like a stalker and that you’re actually offering something timely and relevant.

Here’s a positive example:
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Quizup is one of the most popular quiz apps, partly because they aim to re-engage their users in ways like the genius one above. This push notification is one that will be sent after the user hasn’t used the app for more than a few days.

So, when you send a push notification, if it’s not something relevant that will make your prospect open the app (be it for an in-app purchase or just something they need to look at, as a part of your re-activation efforts), it will make your prospect immediately think of what you’re doing with their data.

Push notifications are the boldest example of the list because they keep coming up as an answer, but there are more tactics that are, eventually, frowned upon, such as pop-ups that use AI to communicate and the classic that creeps out everyone: Ads (on social media or otherwise) featuring the specific product or service the prospect was staring at mere moments before.

But all of the above are subject to some factors that can either make a message convert like crazy or bury it six feet under. Let’s see what those are:

  1. Data used: Make sure you craft your message around data the user has given you willingly. Don’t be like those insanely targeted creepy t-shirts!
  2. Assumptions: Like the example of the father at Target, a wrong assumption can result in a lack of trust. Why would a customer trust in a brand that keeps sending them notifications for products, services, or updates they would never need, based on the data they’ve willingly shared?
  3. Non-timely, non-relevant: The message sent out via a marketing channel was of no use at the moment it was received.
  4. Canned responses: This one is pretty obvious. Unless a canned response is what is appropriate for the situation at hand, the customer won’t feel valued or special by a brand that tells them the same things it tells everyone, and in the same words and manner, no less!
Oh, and a little hint here: Since not everyone is creeped out by hyper-personalization, try and study who won’t bat an eye and, mostly, why. This’ll give you some bonus insights on the inner workings of your prospects’ minds.

Usually, people that are not creeped out by hyper-personalization are people that are very familiar with how data – and, of course, social media – works. That generally includes Millennials and Gen-Zers, many of whom won’t even bat an eye so long as your personalization is spot-on.

Those two age groups are used to sharing their data and are those who pretty much made social media into the powerful platforms they are today.

So long as brands get personal with their audience’s data, and A/B test vigorously, the content – on social media platforms or otherwise – will be more tailor-made and less like a one-size-fits-all solution.

Or even worse, social media content that feels personalized but, when you look at it, it really is nothing more than a creepy attempt.

Luckily, in this day and age, there are more than enough tools that can help with their advanced use of AI that can determine which social media content strategy a brand needs to use.

Things to Do:

As previously mentioned, customers often say email marketing is the best tactic. The reason behind this is the fact that users are trained to expect a discount or a freebie that comes along with a promotional email.

But what other tactics can your brand use, apart from those special discounts we all know too well?

  1. Cart abandonment emails or push notifications are things that can do the trick when it comes to re-engaging a customer; they’re timely, relevant and, therefore, not creepy. An abandoned cart is an action that either happened or didn’t. And the customer can go back and see it if they don’t remember this happening.
  2. Promotional content on new things the prospect may like. This can happen in-app, on the website itself, through email, through targeted ads, through any channel really. So long as you use the data you have gathered with the user’s consent.
  3. Relevant suggestions, especially if we’re talking about some that stem from a new product that was viewed or purchased. This is far from being creepy, seeing as a purchase is something that did happen and that the prospect already uses.
And since, apart from a discount, a survey can always prove to be a good idea, try pairing those with surveys in order to figure out and improve your actions and your net promoter score, while you’re at it.

But, as I’ve already pointed out, email marketing is not the only marketing area that can have stellar results and can use personalization like a champ, in order to drive conversion. Social media marketing is just as important.

So here are all the nice things you can do with social media marketing:

  1. You can retarget prospects that have viewed something specific and have interacted with your content or your website. For example, for every abandoned cart, you can “show” the prospect a retargeting ad with a personalized message, on their social media feeds.
  2. You can personalize suggestions made after a person has made a purchase and send out targeted social media ads with content or products similar to what your prospects have already bought. This, much like a cart abandonment email, is a timely and relevant tactic, as you’re showing similar products right after a prospect has made a purchase.
  3. You can use social media data to personalize social media campaigns. Come up with a personalized incentive – discounts for those who need it, free shipping for those who want it – and announce the surprise on your social media pages. Then run a contest and leverage user-generated content to create a video that will show your users’ reactions, thus boosting engagement without having been a creeper throughout, as you leverage content that your prospects and customers have shared with you willingly.
And with all that data you’ve gathered for your social media campaign, you can craft the perfect personalized message that will be stemming through the perfect, AI-created user persona, that will be shared throughout social media platforms and through email or even PMs.

Much like Coca Cola’s genius #shareacoke campaign.

Some More Tips to Keep in Mind

Your personalized campaign can be state of the art and still not work. So, make sure you did the following:

  • You segmented your list and made your email or offer shareable
This is something that will benefit you in two ways: first of all, customer segmentation will make things seem relevant and personalized in an effortless manner, as Ascend2’s “Email Marketing Strategy – Survey Summary Report” indicates:
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Again, use the data you’re willingly given, leverage user-generated content and analyze the data you’ve got from your social media platforms. Also, by making your email or social media content shareable, you’re turning your prospects into your brand’s ambassadors. And who doesn’t love that kind of trust from a brand?

  • You A/B tested
Change one parameter at a time and make sure to keep track of that data as well. This will help a lot when trying to craft the perfect, targeted, personalized message.

Check content performance afterwards. One headline may be able to guarantee a better click-through rate. A different picture on your social media ad could get tons of engagement, and ultimately lower the cost of your ad spend.
  • You remained true to your brand’s tone
Your brand’s tone of voice needs to be very specific. You can play around with it and adjust it to each message, but you can’t change it radically.

Your brand’s tone is what sets you apart. By changing it, you’re actually telling people to stop trusting you, as they’re bound to get confused, as this article shows.

The Takeaway

Personalization is what drives sales today, but there is always a fine line between doing it and overdoing it.

The main thing to keep in mind is to use data that haven’t been extracted using shady tactics.

Just make sure that you’re as clear as day when it comes to how you’re acquiring data and how you’re planning to use it, make it worth the effort with something given in return, in the form of a freebie, a discount or even access to exclusive benefits and, for the sake of both your customers and your brand, steer clear from wanting more.

Social media platforms and email marketing tools can be fantastic in collecting and utilizing data, and personalization, especially when it comes to social media content, can be tricky without all data, but no brand needs to know every single thing to boost its CRO efforts. 

After all, we all know that you shouldn’t use more data than you have to and that you don’t need all the data you can get your hands on.

All in all, there’s a whole lot of insight to be leveraged if one knows where to look, and social media offers a whole pond where one could dive in and leverage data to create personalized email campaigns – and more!

And remember: if you’re wondering whether something is creepy or not…it probably is!


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