Let’s Not Make This Personal: Marketing Personalization Gone Wrong

by | 18.May.18

Personalization is a powerful force for good in marketing. But, like another Force that was once discovered in a galaxy far, far away, personalization can have a dark side, and lately, too many marketers have been seduced by it.

I’m not talking about personalization mistakes—those embarrassing lapses that result in emails that begin with a chirpy “Hi {{lead.First Name}}!” or ask me whether my company, “N/A,” would like a demo. (Note to self: N/A is a cool name for a company!)

I’m talking about personalization misuse—tactics that weaponize a capability that should improve the customer experience. What does this type of personalization look like? Here are some examples from my inbox:

Hayden, was it something I said? 🙂
This is my third attempt to contact you, Hayden.
Hayden, I just can’t seem to reach you
Hi there, Hayden, it’s me again…
Hayden, I know you’re busy, but…
Hayden, I get the feeling this isn’t a priority.
Hayden, should I wave the white flag?

Yes, you should definitely wave the white flag, because no self-respecting prospect is going to fall for this ploy.

Emotional blackmail is not a legitimate use of personalization, and marketers who use these tactics are not going to get the results they seek in the short term or do their brands any favors over the long term.

If your marketing strategy is based on manipulating your prospects rather than delivering value to them, there is something drastically wrong with it. If your approach focuses on what your prospects owe you rather than what you can give them, you are in big trouble. Guilt shouldn’t be pushing people through the funnel. Value should be pulling them.

We’re personalization evangelists at DemandLab. Helping our clients become “fanatically customer-centric” is literally the core of our brand and the unifying principle of our Revenue Ecosystem® framework.

But personalization is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end. It needs to have a purpose, and that purpose is to engage customers in a way that is authentic and engaging, and that recognizes them and serves their needs.

You may know their name and where they work and what they do and which landing pages they visited, but if you use that information to further your own interests rather than theirs, “personalization” will backfire on you spectacularly because:

It’s inauthentic. Sending a mass email as a personal note that requires a personal response insults the recipient’s intelligence. Following up with increasingly indignant emails that demand a response only adds insult to injury.

It’s not engaging. To engage, you need to intrigue, inform, or delight the customer. How does a whiny, passive-aggressive email accomplish any of the above?

It places your needs above the customer’s. Don’t expect customers to help you with your job. (“Can you point me in the right direction?” “Can you forward this to the right person?”) Help them with theirs, instead.

Personalization technologies are evolving rapidly, as are people’s expectations and preferences. As marketers, we are all learning as we go, and mistakes will inevitably be made. But no matter how quickly things change, the fundamentals stay the same: if you know your customer and put their needs first, you can’t go wrong.

Before you roll out a new approach to personalization, ask these questions:

Does it respect their intelligence?

Even if your recipients aren’t marketers, chances are they know that “personalized” email wasn’t carefully drafted and perfected for them personally. When you pretend that it was and then give them a hard time for “ignoring” you, it’s insulting, and proves you don’t know them as well as you pretend to.

Does it respect their journey?

Personalization customizes the experience, but that experience needs to unfold over time. If someone signs up for your newsletter, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to be invited to a live demo a day later, even a demo that’s tailored to their role, industry, or other personal info.

Does it respect their privacy?

All marketers must walk a fine line between “relevant” and “creepy.” You want your customers to feel recognized and understood, not stalked. “Hi Hayden, I noticed you watched the first 30 seconds of our video on email personalization yesterday”—that’s creepy. “Hi Hayden, if you’re looking for the most effective personalization techniques for email, you might want read this blog post…”—that’s relevant and helpful.

Our ability to collect and leverage customer data will only increase as time goes by, and the greater the power, the greater the responsibility. As marketers, we are the voice of the customer. We are their champion. If the power to personalize at scale leads us to engineer experiences that not only fail to delight but actually annoy, it’s time to course-correct.

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