Personalization: What’s in It for the Customers?

Too many marketers are personally annoying their customers in the name of personalization. For that reason alone, I am looking for an alternative word for “good” personalization.

personalization-aiAny salesperson would know that remembering a few personal details about a customer or prospect is the first step toward building a relationship. Of course, one shouldn’t be too “salesy,” as anyone can see through manufactured friendliness. Going too far in the wrong direction, the seller can even be seen creepy. That rule equally applies to all types of 1:1 marketing. Just because you know “something” about the person, it doesn’t mean that you “know” the person.

Personalization should be gentle nudges toward relevant products and services for the customers, and it should never be bombardments of seller-centric marketing messages through all imaginable channels. No one deserves such abuse just because she forgot to uncheck some pre-populated checkbox about future marketing messages at some point in the distant past. I bet even marketers feel abused when they open their personal email boxes.

Too many marketers are personally annoying their customers in the name of personalization. For that reason alone, I am looking for an alternative word for “good” personalization.

If marketers think that they are still in control just because they got to have a few tidbits about their customers in some fancy Big Data platform, well, they are utterly wrong. They are not in control at all any more. In the age of multichannel marketing, consumers are trained to ignore things that look even remotely salesy. Age of mobile? Forget that, too. You don’t own that customer just because he downloaded your app a long time ago and forgot to purge it. How many apps do you routinely use on your smartphone?

Modern human beings look at six to seven types of screens every day — as big as a billboard and as small as a wristwatch. Marketers may think that all of those new channels may provide new opportunities to sell. Well, maybe. But only if they do it right. When was the last time an invention of a new channel actually increased demand of certain products (other than the medium, such as the smartphone itself)? During the first boom, many thought that the Internet would sell more things magically. Now we know better — that people do not buy extra TVs, jeans or sporting equipment, just because there is a new channel through which they can shop.

Yet, most companies created new divisions to handle new channels, as if mastering each domain would attract more customers. No. Maybe they are just annoying their customers using new technologies. Unfortunately for one-track minded marketers, human brains have evolved to ignore unnecessary information from their “personal” point of view.

Our brains do not process all of the things that our eyes see. Case in point? When you land on a familiar Web page, you don’t always notice most banners that are on the right-hand side. You already know where information you seek is located on a certain page. If all of the banners were removed all of a sudden, you would know that the page looked somewhat empty. But that’s it. Like you would notice a piece of furniture was removed, but wouldn’t know what exactly was missing.

The game is about how we gently make people aware that we may have something that “they” may care for. It is about them, not us. To do that, we have to show them something that is relevant to “them.” To do that, we have to know what they are about. To do that, we need to know who they are, and rearrange all of the information that we have around them. And to do that effectively and holistically, we have to fill in the gap — as we will never know everything about everyone — using modeling techniques. Only then, we can stay relevant to them at any time, and we may deserve some of their attention, if only briefly.

The first breakdown in this chain of events is often the fact that we don’t even know who they are, really. Not necessarily in terms of personal identification, but any ID or proxy of a person that binds personal trails of information. Now, since a cookie, IP address or email address do not really represent a person, we should not give up the efforts to collect personally identifiable information and consents from the target individuals. And that is where the question of “what is in it for the customers?” comes in

Surely, no one would give up cherished PII if she know that she was indeed signing up for all of those irrelevant marketing messages. To most of the consumers, “You will occasionally receive relevant offers from us and our respected partners” really means that “You will have to delete a whole bunch emails from us and anyone who purchased information from us on a daily basis, until you explicitly opt out of every one of them separately.” So, just stating that the messages will be relevant isn’t enough. We should really mean it. And it is really hard to personalize every message to everyone through every channel. It involves lots of work regarding data, analytics, content and various technologies (refer to “Key Elements of Complete Personalization”).

On top of the promise of relevancy, the collection of PII should be a beneficial transaction for the customers. Why should they give up their private information? For future savings? Loyalty points? Coupons for the next purchase? An extra 10 percent discount, right now?

I’ve seen retailers who boast of collection rates over 90 to 95 percent for PII and related behavioral data. The trick? There is no trick. They see the value of personal information in this personalization game, and they are just willing to pay for it. That type of investment, of course, only comes to fruition if the organization has the commitment, means and ability to carry out necessary data, analytics and technology work for complete “customer-centric” personalization. And the first step toward that kind of commitment is to share the benefits of increased marketing efficiency — and the right to exist as a seller in this multichannel environment — with the customers.

We came a long way from “Fill-in everybody’s mailbox with seller-centric mailing offers,” by way of “No emails unless you have double-opt-in,” to “Keep bombarding every customer through every channel until they explicitly opt out.” Modern consumers, who are much savvier in terms of digital technologies, are willing to share their information if, and only if, it benefits them. They will let you know who they are, what they are about, where they are, what they are about to do and even what they are thinking. This is the age of social media, after all.

But if they even remotely feel that they are being taken advantage of in any way, if they think a marketer is acting creepy, or if they think their privacy is violated even implicitly, they will sever all ties with the company in question immediately. Some may even go as far as posting damaging images and other content on social media, or seeking legal action against the violators of real or perceived trust in the data exchange. A healthy relationship is founded on the fair exchange of values, and they will determine what is fair or not.

Marketers are not in control of data and technologies when it comes to personalization. Customers are. Marketers are only temporary custodians of information about their customers. And they have to pay a lease on such information, in the form of real value. Further, they have to act like that lease won’t renew all by itself, either. If the customers feel that there is nothing to gain from that relationship — even without a clear violation of privacy — they will cut it out mercilessly. That is how relationships work.

Like every relationship counselor will say, if you want to maintain a good relationship with anyone, first start listening to her and make the relationship mutually beneficial. Then maybe, just maybe, the customers may allow marketers to talk to them once in awhile.

And figuring out how often is often enough and what is most relevant to each customer? That is the key job of analysts in the age of abundant data.

Author: Stephen H. Yu

Stephen H. Yu is a world-class database marketer. He has a proven track record in comprehensive strategic planning and tactical execution, effectively bridging the gap between the marketing and technology world with a balanced view obtained from more than 30 years of experience in best practices of database marketing. Currently, Yu is president and chief consultant at Willow Data Strategy. Previously, he was the head of analytics and insights at eClerx, and VP, Data Strategy & Analytics at Infogroup. Prior to that, Yu was the founding CTO of I-Behavior Inc., which pioneered the use of SKU-level behavioral data. “As a long-time data player with plenty of battle experiences, I would like to share my thoughts and knowledge that I obtained from being a bridge person between the marketing world and the technology world. In the end, data and analytics are just tools for decision-makers; let’s think about what we should be (or shouldn’t be) doing with them first. And the tools must be wielded properly to meet the goals, so let me share some useful tricks in database design, data refinement process and analytics.” Reach him at

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