Crossing the Line Creates Cross Customers

It’s no new news that brands track our purchases and then send us coupons, promotions, special offers and “news” that fit our shopping patterns. That’s cool. Bring it on as, in most cases, we win with worthwhile discounts, loyalty rewards, and such that pay off in one way or another.

retargeting
“ad,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by Eugene Peretz

It’s no new news that brands track our purchases and then send us coupons, promotions, special offers and “news” that fit our shopping patterns. That’s cool. Bring it on as, in most cases, we win with worthwhile discounts, loyalty rewards, and such that pay off in one way or another.

We expect this kind of personalized communications for simple products bought at Wal-Mart, Target, Amazon and so on. In most cases, we all know its happening, and its okay because its data that is not threatening. Who cares if Walmart knows I buy Newman’s spaghetti sauce, or that I have a fetish for glitter green nail polish? Right?

But, with all of the new technology available to track, monitor and influence consumers’ purchasing behavior in real-time, the game is changing.

We now are being listened to on our social sites so Facebook and others can serve us up ads for products we just browsed and might have left in our shopping cart, upping its profits if the social network can get us to go back and buy.

And we are being watched by big data users when we go to the store physically — not just online.

And for most — myself, included — this doesn’t feel so good.

Consider this: When out of town, shopping at a store where I don’t usually shop, I bought mouse traps as I unwittingly let one of these unpleasant creatures in my house. That night, while opening up the Solitaire app on my iPhone to help me find sleep, an ad for that very brand and type of mousetrap appeared on my phone. Odd, but I noted that someone was possibly tracking my purchases via my credit card and then appending that to my phone. Okay. Not what I signed up for, but I understood it — at least for this one purchase.

Then consider this: My husband went to the store and used his credit card to buy a little-known brand of gluten free bread — two uncommon variables, right there. Within the hour, an ad for that very brand and product showed up on MY phone, not his, but MY phone. Suddenly “watching” my purchases and those of my family is not okay with me any more, and it conjured up a lot of “what ifs.”

What if:

  • My husband had just bought me a 2-carat sapphire ring and wanted to keep it a surprise?
  • What if my husband had just bought medication for an illness he had not told me about yet?
  • And what if I were advertising my house on VRBO for holiday rentals and somehow my phone number on the listing was associated with that mousetrap purchase and all potential renters saw an ad in their side bar about mouse traps? That could conjure up a lot of yucky feelings, unconsciously, which could be unintentionally associated with my listing.

The list goes on … and so do:

The Questions All of Us Marketers Must Ask Ourselves

At what point does data tracking, customer profiling and targeted, automated marketing cross the line from “personalized customer service and care” to “creepy, stalkerish behavior” that makes consumers feel exposed, vulnerable and just downright uncomfortable?

How you answer this question and adapt your automated marketing messages and campaigns is critical. You might argue that our devices are anonymized and that brands really don’t know who goes with what IP address or device codes. But is this really accurate in terms of the possibility to pinpoint specifics about individuals? Consider the following example from an article posted on DeZyre.com.

An office supply store sent a customer a promotional letter and set up the personalization process to reference a personal detail or transaction on the envelope. In this case, that personalized envelope “teaser” was “Daughter killed in car crash.” That was not information he had opted to share with this office supply store, and clearly not information that was related to anything the store needed to know to offer him more laser pointers or copy paper at a discount. It is information that clearly was gleaned from other sources about his personal life and potentially legal or government records; which, clearly, he did not volunteer to a store for customer service purposes.

Be Honest — With Yourselves

Again, managers and servers of big data maintain that their promotional messages are sent to devices that are anonymized, so no secrets are revealed and consumers are not exposed. But at the end of the day, is it really? Any database that has customer transactions that also contains devices, IP addresses and names can be tracked back to an individual. Just ask the FBI, CIA, Mueller and any other investigative unit.

And is it really anonymized when social listening takes place? Track your conversations online and see what ads pop up shortly thereafter.

Beyond asking yourselves where you should cross the line, ask consumers how they feel about ads that “creep” up outside of personalized coupons you send via an opt-in program. I did just that on my Facebook page and here’s what came back from consumers:

  • “Scary and happening more frequently. Not okay.”
  • “It bothers me to no end. Once I started noticing it, I have become increasingly aware of it and it scares the $%^( out of me.”
  • “If I don’t sign up for it, it bothers me.”
  • “I always find it creepy when I’ve been looking/shopping for something and all of a sudden I get an ad for it.”
  • “Time to live off the grid and pay cash.”
  • “This is very scary.”
  • “No way!”

If consumers are scared of what you know about them, its time to rethink that proverbial line. Don’t cross it just because you can or because you’ve invested in the technology that automatically delivers those ads, so you have to use it fully to get your promised ROI. Think about how you can use this amazing data and technology for real-time marketing across devices and channels in ways that actually please customers vs. scare them, like inviting them to opt in like we have for so many other channels.

It’s not just a courtesy to involve customers in the decision to watch them in order to serve them really relevant timely ads, it’s critical to our future as an industry. How? Because if we don’t do it, we will likely increase more of those opt-outs and even legal regulations that will force us to stop communicating despite honest and good intentions we might have.

Consequences for Marketers

Think about it. Consumers have spoken up about getting harassed on the phone by opting into the “do not call” list. Consumers have shut down unwanted emails by advocating against spam and assuring they have a choice to opt out. Brands that spam are blacklisted and shut down by email servers as a result.

Just these two examples of consumer backlash have impacted the way we communicate with consumers and laws have been passed that we can’t get around. If we continue to serve “anonymized” ads to personal devices on apps that are personal, like my Solitaire game, are we setting ourselves up for more regulation — in addition to increased opt-outs for “permission” marketing from more angry, frustrated consumers who leave our brand to patronize one that doesn’t follow their every move?

As marketers, we have a big responsibility not to just do our jobs and fuel sales and lifetime value, but to consumers and our customers to preserve what matters most to them: anonymity, privacy and security.

Curious about your thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Please post your thoughts, suggestions and ideas for how we can continue to use the power of personalization, big data and automated marketing for the greater good? (The greater good for us and our happy, lifelong customers.)

Don’t Do It Just Because You Can

Don’t do it just because you can. No kidding. … Any geek with moderate coding skills or any overzealous marketer with access to some data can do real damage to real human beings without any superpowers to speak of. Largely, we wouldn’t go so far as calling them permanent damages, but I must say that some marketing messages and practices are really annoying and invasive. Enough to classify them as “junk mail” or “spam.” Yeah, I said that, knowing full-well that those words are forbidden in the industry in which I built my career.

Don’t do it just because you can. No kidding. By the way, I could have gone with Ben Parker’s “With great power comes great responsibility” line, but I didn’t, as it has become an over-quoted cliché. Plus, I’m not much of a fan of “Spiderman.” Actually, I’m kidding this time. (Not the “Spiderman” part, as I’m more of a fan of “Thor.”) But the real reason is any geek with moderate coding skills or any overzealous marketer with access to some data can do real damage to real human beings without any superpowers to speak of. Largely, we wouldn’t go so far as calling them permanent damages, but I must say that some marketing messages and practices are really annoying and invasive. Enough to classify them as “junk mail” or “spam.” Yeah, I said that, knowing full-well that those words are forbidden in the industry in which I built my career.

All jokes aside, I received a call from my mother a few years ago asking me if this “urgent” letter that says her car warranty will expire if she does not act “right now” (along with a few exclamation marks) is something to which she must respond immediately. Many of us by now are impervious to such fake urgencies or outrageous claims (like “You’ve just won $10,000,000!!!”). But I then realized that there still are plenty of folks who would spend their hard-earned dollars based on such misleading messages. What really made me mad, other than the fact that my own mother was involved in that case, was that someone must have actually targeted her based on her age, ethnicity, housing value and, of course, the make and model of her automobile. I’ve been doing this job for too long to be unaware of potential data variables and techniques that must have played a part so that my mother to receive a series of such letters. Basically, some jerk must have created a segment that could be named as “old and gullible.” Without a doubt, this is a classic example of what should not be done just because one can.

One might dismiss it as an isolated case of a questionable practice done by questionable individuals with questionable moral integrity, but can we honestly say that? I, who knows the ins and outs of direct marketing practices quite well, fell into traps more than a few times, where supposedly a one-time order mysteriously turns into a continuity program without my consent, followed by an extremely cumbersome canceling process. Further, when I receive calls or emails from shady merchants with dubious offers, I can very well assume my information changed hands in very suspicious ways, if not through outright illegal routes.

Even without the criminal elements, as data become more ubiquitous and targeting techniques become more precise, an accumulation of seemingly inoffensive actions by innocuous data geeks can cause a big ripple in the offline (i.e., “real”) world. I am sure many of my fellow marketers remember the news about this reputable retail chain a few years ago; that they accurately predicted pregnancy in households based on their product purchase patterns and sent customized marketing messages featuring pregnancy-related products accordingly. Subsequently it became a big controversy, as such a targeted message was the way one particular head of household found out his teenage daughter was indeed pregnant. An unintended consequence? You bet.

I actually saw the presentation of the instigating statisticians in a predictive analytics conference before the whole incident hit the wire. At the time, the presenters were unaware of the consequences of their actions, so they proudly shared employed methodologies with the audience. But when I heard about what they were actually trying to predict, I immediately turned my head to look at the lead statistician in my then-analytical team sitting next to me, and saw that she had a concerned look that I must have had on my face, as well. And our concern was definitely not about the techniques, as we knew how to do the same when provided with similar sets of data. It was about the human consequences that such a prediction could bring, not just to the eventual targets, but also to the predictors and their fellow analysts in the industry who would all be lumped together as evil scientists by the outsiders. In predictive analytics, there is a price for being wrong; and at times, there is a price to pay for being right, too. Like I said, we shouldn’t do things just because we can.

Analysts do not have superpowers individually, but when technology and ample amounts of data are conjoined, the results can be quite influential and powerful, much like the way bombs can be built with common materials available at any hardware store. Ironically, I have been evangelizing that the data and technology should be wielded together to make big and dumb data smaller and smarter all this time. But providing answers to decision-makers in ready-to-be used formats, hence “humanizing” the data, may have its downside, too. Simply, “easy to use” can easily be “easy to abuse.” After all, humans are fallible creatures with ample amounts of greed and ambition. Even without any obvious bad intentions, it is sometimes very difficult to contemplate all angles, especially about those sensitive and squeamish humans.

I talked about the social consequences of the data business last month (refer to “How to Be a Good Data Scientist“), and that is why I emphasized that anyone who is about to get into this data field must possess deep understandings of both technology and human nature. That little sensor in your stomach that tells you “Oh, I have a bad feeling about this” may not come to everyone naturally, but we all need to be equipped with those safeguards like angels on our shoulders.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but apparently, those smart analysts who did that pregnancy prediction only thought about the techniques and the bottom line, but did not consider all the human factors. And they should have. Or, if not them, their manager should have. Or their partners in the marketing department should have. Or their public relations people should have. Heck, “someone” in their organization should have, alright? Just like we do not casually approach a woman on the street who “seems” pregnant and say “You must be pregnant.” Only socially inept people would do that.

People consider certain matters extremely private, in case some data geeks didn’t realize that. If I might add, the same goes for ailments such as erectile dysfunction or constipation, or any other personal business related to body parts that are considered private. Unless you are a doctor in an examining room, don’t say things like “You look old, so you must have hard time having sex, right?” It is already bad enough that we can’t even watch golf tournaments on TV without those commercials that assume that golf fans need help in that department. (By the way, having “two” bathtubs “outside” the house at dusk don’t make any sense either, when the effect of the drug can last for hours for heaven’s sake. Maybe the man lost interest because the tubs were too damn heavy?)

While it may vary from culture to culture, we all have some understanding of social boundaries in casual settings. When you are talking to a complete stranger on a plane ride, for example, you know exactly how much information that you would feel comfortable sharing with that person. And when someone crosses the line, we call that person inappropriate, or “creepy.” Unfortunately, that creepy line is set differently for each person who we encounter (I am sure people like George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson have a really high threshold for what might be considered creepy), but I think we can all agree that such a shady area can be loosely defined at the least. Therefore, when we deal with large amounts of data affecting a great many people, imagine a rather large common area of such creepiness/shadiness, and do not ever cross it. In other words, when in doubt, don’t go for it.

Now, as a lifelong database marketer, I am not advocating some over-the-top privacy zealots either, as most of them do not understand the nature of data work and can’t tell the difference between informed (and mutually beneficial) messages and Big Brother-like nosiness. This targeting business is never about looking up an individual’s record one at a time, but more about finding correlations between users and products and doing some good match-making in mass numbers. In other words, we don’t care what questionable sites anyone visits, and honest data players would not steal or abuse information with bad intent. I heard about waiters who steal credit card numbers from their customers with some swiping devices, but would you condemn the entire restaurant industry for that? Yes, there are thieves in any part of the society, but not all data players are hackers, just like not all waiters are thieves. Statistically speaking, much like flying being the safest from of travel, I can even argue that handing over your physical credit card to a stranger is even more dangerous than entering the credit card number on a website. It looks much worse when things go wrong, as incidents like that affect a great many all at once, just like when a plane crashes.

Years back, I used to frequent a Japanese Restaurant near my office. The owner, who doubled as the head sushi chef, was not a nosy type. So he waited for more than a year to ask me what I did for living. He had never heard anything about database marketing, direct marketing or CRM (no “Big Data” on the horizon at that time). So I had to find a simple way to explain what I do. As a sushi chef with some local reputation, I presumed that he would know personal preferences of many frequently visiting customers (or “high-value customers,” as marketers call them). He may know exactly who likes what kind of fish and types of cuts, who doesn’t like raw shellfish, who is allergic to what, who has less of a tolerance for wasabi or who would indulge in exotic fish roes. When I asked this question, his answer was a simple “yes.” Any diligent sushi chef would care for his or her customers that much. And I said, “Now imagine that you can provide such customized services to millions of people, with the help of computers and collected data.” He immediately understood the benefits of using data and analytics, and murmured “Ah so …”

Now let’s turn the table for a second here. From the customer’s point of view, yes, it is very convenient for me that my favorite sushi chef knows exactly how I like my sushi. Same goes for the local coffee barista who knows how you take your coffee every morning. Such knowledge is clearly mutually beneficial. But what if those business owners or service providers start asking about my personal finances or about my grown daughter in a “creepy” way? I wouldn’t care if they carried the best yellowtail in town or served the best cup of coffee in the world. I would cease all my interaction with them immediately. Sorry, they’ve just crossed that creepy line.

Years ago, I had more than a few chances to sit closely with Lester Wunderman, widely known as “The Father of Direct Marketing,” as the venture called I-Behavior in which I participated as one of the founders actually originated from an idea on a napkin from Lester and his friends. Having previously worked in an agency that still bears his name, and having only seen him behind a podium until I was introduced to him on one cool autumn afternoon in 1999, meeting him at a small round table and exchanging ideas with the master was like an unknown guitar enthusiast having a jam session with Eric Clapton. What was most amazing was that, at the beginning of the dot.com boom, he was completely unfazed about all those new ideas that were flying around at that time, and he was precisely pointing out why most of them would not succeed at all. I do not need to quote the early 21st century history to point out that his prediction was indeed accurate. When everyone was chasing the latest bit of technology for quick bucks, he was at least a decade ahead of all of those young bucks, already thinking about the human side of the equation. Now, I would not reveal his age out of respect, but let’s just say that almost all of the people in his age group would describe occupations of their offspring as “Oh, she just works on a computer all the time …” I can only wish that I will remain that sharp when I am his age.

One day, Wunderman very casually shared a draft of the “Consumer Bill of Rights for Online Engagement” with a small group of people who happened to be in his office. I was one of the lucky souls who heard about his idea firsthand, and I remember feeling that he was spot-on with every point, as usual. I read it again recently just as this Big Data hype is reaching its peak, just like the dot.com boom was moving with a force that could change the world back then. In many ways, such tidal waves do end up changing the world. But lest we forget, such shifts inevitably affect living, breathing human beings along the way. And for any movement guided by technology to sustain its velocity, people who are at the helm of the enabling technology must stay sensitive toward the needs of the rest of the human collective. In short, there is not much to gain by annoying and frustrating the masses.

Allow me to share Lester Wunderman’s “Consumer Bill of Rights for Online Engagement” verbatim, as it appeared in the second edition of his book “Being Direct”:

  1. Tell me clearly who you are and why you are contacting me.
  2. Tell me clearly what you are—or are not—going to do with the information I give.
  3. Don’t pretend that you know me personally. You don’t know me; you know some things about me.
  4. Don’t assume that we have a relationship.
  5. Don’t assume that I want to have a relationship with you.
  6. Make it easy for me to say “yes” and “no.”
  7. When I say “no,” accept that I mean not this, not now.
  8. Help me budget not only my money, but also my TIME.
  9. My time is valuable, don’t waste it.
  10. Make my shopping experience easier.
  11. Don’t communicate with me just because you can.
  12. If you do all of that, maybe we will then have the basis for a relationship!

So, after more than 15 years of the so-called digital revolution, how many of these are we violating almost routinely? Based on the look of my inboxes and sites that I visit, quite a lot and all the time. As I mentioned in my earlier article “The Future of Online is Offline,” I really get offended when even seasoned marketers use terms like “online person.” I do not become an online person simply because I happen to stumble onto some stupid website and forget to uncheck some pre-checked boxes. I am not some casual object at which some email division of a company can shoot to meet their top-down sales projections.

Oh, and good luck with that kind of mindless mass emailing; your base will soon be saturated and you will learn that irrelevant messages are bad for the senders, too. Proof? How is it that the conversion rate of a typical campaign did not increase dramatically during the past 40 years or so? Forget about open or click-through rate, but pay attention to the good-old conversion rate. You know, the one that measures actual sales. Don’t we have superior databases and technologies now? Why is anyone still bragging about mailing “more” in this century? Have you heard about “targeted” or “personalized” messages? Aren’t there lots and lots of toolsets for that?

As the technology advances, it becomes that much easier and faster to offend people. If the majority of data handlers continue to abuse their power, stemming from the data in their custody, the communication channels will soon run dry. Or worse, if abusive practices continue, the whole channel could be shut down by some legislation, as we have witnessed in the downfall of the outbound telemarketing channel. Unfortunately, a few bad apples will make things a lot worse a lot faster, but I see that even reputable companies do things just because they can. All the time, repeatedly.

Furthermore, in this day and age of abundant data, not offending someone or not violating rules aren’t good enough. In fact, to paraphrase comedian Chris Rock, only losers brag about doing things that they are supposed to do in the first place. The direct marketing industry has long been bragging about the self-governing nature of its tightly knit (and often incestuous) network, but as tools get cheaper and sharper by the day, we all need to be even more careful wielding this data weaponry. Because someday soon, we as consumers will be seeing messages everywhere around us, maybe through our retina directly, not just in our inboxes. Personal touch? Yes, in the creepiest way, if done wrong.

Visionaries like Lester Wunderman were concerned about the abusive nature of online communication from the very beginning. We should all read his words again, and think twice about social and human consequences of our actions. Google from its inception encapsulated a similar idea by simply stating its organizational objective as “Don’t be evil.” That does not mean that it will stop pursuing profit or cease to collect data. I think it means that Google will always try to be mindful about the influences of its actions on real people, who may not be in positions to control the data, but instead are on the side of being the subject of data collection.

I am not saying all of this out of some romantic altruism; rather, I am emphasizing the human side of the data business to preserve the forward-momentum of the Big Data movement, while I do not even care for its name. Because I still believe, even from a consumer’s point of view, that a great amount of efficiency could be achieved by using data and technology properly. No one can deny that modern life in general is much more convenient thanks to them. We do not get lost on streets often, we can translate foreign languages on the fly, we can talk to people on the other side of the globe while looking at their faces. We are much better informed about products and services that we care about, we can look up and order anything we want while walking on the street. And heck, we get suggestions before we even think about what we need.

But we can think of many negative effects of data, as well. It goes without saying that the data handlers must protect the data from falling into the wrong hands, which may have criminal intentions. Absolutely. That is like banks having to protect their vaults. Going a few steps further, if marketers want to retain the privilege of having ample amounts of consumer information and use such knowledge for their benefit, do not ever cross that creepy line. If the Consumer’s Bill of Rights is too much for you to retain, just remember this one line: “Don’t be creepy.”

Creepy Marketing and Social Media: How to Scare Away Your Customers for Good

Halloween is around the corner, so for this week’s post I wanted to turn to a topic that is most definitely apropos: creepy marketing. No, we’re not talking about marketing for Halloween. What’s creepy marketing, you might ask? Creepy marketing is what happens when personalization goes horribly wrong—when good intentions morph into, well, disturbing communication that has the opposite of its intended effect and, instead of helping a brand push a product or service, sends recipients running for the hills.

Halloween is around the corner, so for this week’s post I wanted to turn to a topic that is most definitely apropos: creepy marketing. No, we’re not talking about marketing for Halloween.

What’s creepy marketing, you might ask? Creepy marketing is what happens when personalization goes horribly wrong—when good intentions morph into, well, disturbing communication that has the opposite of its intended effect and, instead of helping a brand push a product or service, sends recipients running for the hills. With the rise of social media and its nearly universal adoption by marketers, it’s high time that marketers learn what not to do when they engage with their customers and prospects.

Fact is, marketers use personalization because it works extremely well. How well? Generally, the more you personalize a message the better it will perform. In a landmark study by Banta Corp. on multichannel marketing, it was reported that incorporating three or four personalized elements in an email boosted its clickthrough rate by 63 percent, and seven or more elements lifted it by an amazing 318 percent!

Wow! With stats like these, you can see why marketers of all stripes have been jumping on the personalization bandwagon like it’s going out of style. During the past few years, we’ve witnessed an explosion of personalized content across the marketing spectrum—direct mail, email, SMS, landing pages … all spiced up by including personalized content or messaging. Out of all of this personalized communication, some has been good, some has been great … and some has been downright creepy.

Last year, I put out a post titled “Creepy Marketing—When Database Marketing Goes Awry,” in which I defined creepy marketing as “if it looks creepy and feels creepy, then it probably is creepy and you shouldn’t do it.” I then go on to point out that an actual example of creepy marketing includes writing out a customer’s name along with other personally identifiable information anywhere visible to the general public. I also include displaying a customer’s age, marital status or medical condition in marketing messaging.

Turning to social media, avoiding creepy marketing takes on a new urgency in the medium where stakes have been raised considerably. The reason why is two-fold: First, because social media involve networks of individuals with public exposure, it’s way easier to creep people out. Second, if you do offend someone on social media, then good luck handling the ensuing social media disaster. Offended parties now have the ability to let everyone on their social networks know right away just how unhappy they are—and they usually don’t hesitate to do so.

So how do you avoid creeping people out in social media? On a strategic level, a thoughtful post by Laura Horton that appeared on VentureBeat.com offers five pointers:

1. Be helpful but not pushy;

2. Be a thought leader, if you can;

3. Be careful what you say, even if you know a lot;

4. Reach out if you see active interest in your brand; and

5. Stay on top of social marketing best practices and trends.

I think this list is a good place to start. More tactically speaking, in her blog Kristen Lamb gives us five examples of social media marketing tactics that not only creep individuals out, but probably don’t work very well, either. Her list includes automatically adding people to your firm’s Facebook fan list, and sending out annoying automated promotional messages on Twitter to random people who might have tweeted about topics you think are relevant to whatever product you’re trying to push. Yuck.

Again, I think this list is a good starting point. Though of course, the possibilities for abuse by marketers are probably endless. Have you ever been creeped out by a company on social media? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Please let me know in your comments.

Happy Halloween and happy marketing!

—Rio

Creepy Marketing—When Database Marketing Goes Awry

With Halloween over and the holidays on their way, I thought that Creepy Marketing made a timely subject for today’s blog. Now I’m not referring to marketing for ghouls, witches or mummies. I’m talking about adding a creepy factor to your marketing program—a major pitfall of 1:1 marketing.

With Halloween over and the holidays here, I thought that Creepy Marketing made a timely subject for today’s blog. Now I’m not referring to marketing for ghouls, witches or mummies. I’m talking about adding a creepy factor to your marketing program—a major pitfall of 1:1 marketing.

Creeping people out is, after all, contrary to what we’re trying to achieve as marketers, which is namely to use promotion to advance the brand’s sales and branding objectives. That is, of course, unless it’s your goal to damage your brand and drive away customers. Assuming that’s not the case, let’s assume that creepy is bad. Very bad. In the age of social media, one creeped out customer can very easily spread the word to hundreds of thousands of customers and prospects. In other words, better safe than sorry.

But before we go any further, however, let’s attempt to define creepy. This is important because many marketers I speak with cite there often is a razor thin line between casual and its inappropriate Cousin Creepy, between making a sale and detonating a potential long-term relationship. Fair enough. Creepiness is also a bit slippery because, like fashion tastes, standards for creepiness definitely do tend to change with time. To quote Sean parker, former CEO of Facebook, “Today’s creepy is tomorrow’s necessity.”

When it comes to detecting creepiness, I’m a firm believer of what I’ll call the ad oculos school of thought. For those of you who do not understand Latin, ad oculos means “to the eyes,” and roughly translates into “obvious to anyone that sees it.” In other words, if it looks creepy and feels creepy, then it probably is creepy and you shouldn’t do it.

You shouldn’t, for example, write out your customer’s names on a postcard or landing page—or anywhere that might be, or seem, visible to the general public. Nor for that matter should you display your customer’s age, marital status, or medical condition on any piece of marketing collateral. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t send offers for dating services to a customer you know is single, or information on chiropractors to someone who has acknowledged a back problem. What this means is you need to be careful with the language you use in these offers, taking care not to publicize information your customers want to remain in the private sphere.

It’s also important to keep in mind that 1:1 marketing works because it focuses like a laser on your customer’s interests and presents them with compelling and compatible product information and offers. Personalized communication is not an exercise in regurgitating your customer’s personal data in an effort to prove to them how much you know.

Remember, successful database marketers use profile data to run highly compelling and relevant campaigns to their customers. What makes the campaign successful is the fact that the offer and marketing message contain relevant information that the recipient will have a strong affinity for—not simply because it is personalized. Personalization for the sake a personalization is nothing but a gimmick—it might work once but that’s it. Successful and sustainable personalized marketing programs ultimately find a formula for identifying customer interests based on key data points and indicators, and use this formula to create and disseminate offers that will strike a chord with prospects and customers.

Have you ever been creeped out? If so, I’d love to find out how and get your feedback.