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Most Consumers Find Marketing Personalization 'Creepy'

When it comes to marketing personalization, the gap between marketers and consumers may be becoming a chasm

The idea of personalizing marketing messages to customers is a logical next step for firms with ever more ways of tracking and understanding consumer behavior and customers who, in turn, increasingly expect more from their digital interactions with companies.

But it’s a fine line, and it’s easy for eager marketers to take things too far. Take an unremarkable purchase from a local chain-retailer. A customer could leave the store with no more than a paper receipt in hand and it’s now become quite likely that a few weeks later they will receive an email from the retailer asking for a review of the products (along with pictures of the exact items purchased) for a chance to win a raffle or similar.

Anyone with an interest in running a business may well wonder how they could work the same kind of magic on their customers, but for most consumers it’s unsettling. As far as they’re concerned, they didn’t even provide an email address to this retailer, and they probably can’t unsubscribe from the mailing list fast enough.

Based on the preliminary findings of a marketing personalization survey, marketers are making large investments in data integration, matching, and analytics, with just under a quarter (23%) having a “data management platform” (for firms in the retail sector, this rises to 50%). The retailer in the above example will have either purchased data from a data vendor (like Experian or Axciom) or used point-of-sale or other data to match the customer’s email address to their credit card.

Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

It’s important for marketers to balance these kinds of personalization capabilities with a customer’s receptivity to them. This is underpinned by a recent piece of CEB panel research that asked marketers how they thought their personalized campaigns make consumers feel, and then asked consumers for their view.

Much to most marketers’ chagrin, their customers are not big fans of it. Just under 400 consumers were asked an open-ended question about how “online ads that use details about what I have done” make them feel. Almost three-quarters (73%) were negative, and almost half used synonyms for “creepy” — including words like “hunted,” “naked,” “unsafe,” and “worried” (see chart 1).

Consumer expectations from digital marcomm personalization

Chart 1: Consumer expectations from digital marcomm personalization  Percentage of mentions by marketers versus consumers; n=58 marketers, 390 consumers  Source: CEB analysis

Many consumers, it seems, feel compromised by personalized messaging and few find them valuable. Fewer than one-in-five said they find online messages “about products you have previously viewed online” (17%) and two-thirds (66%) have received “a lot of messages from brands that try to be relevant to me, but aren’t.”

Yet, despite these negative feelings, most marketers in the early survey results believe that their personalized marcomms make consumers feel “valued” (62%) or “positive” (31%) about their brands, which unfortunately suggests that that the gap between marketers and consumers may be becoming a chasm.

Balanced against all this sentiment, however, is some cold hard sales data. About one-quarter of marketers say they have seen significant returns from personalization, so it certainly seems like the approach pays dividends, as long as marketers manage to walk the line between “interested” and plain creepy.


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