EDITORIAL: Back Off

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The drive toward more personalized marketing certainly has its pitfalls.


A colleague recently received a wireless phone pitch from Amazon.com via e-mail that began as follows:


"Now that you're eating better, exercising more, and getting organized, scratch another resolution off your list: improving your communication with the perfect wireless setup from Amazon.com."


Coincidentally, two of her last three Amazon.com book purchases were "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution" and "Home Office Design: Everything You Need to Know About Planning, Organizing, and Furnishing Your Work Space."


Ouch. The opening line of Amazon's pitch made some fairly safe assumptions for a consumer mailing sent early in the new year, but with all the recent media coverage of online data collection and consumer privacy fears, my colleague naturally assumed that Amazon was incorporating her buying behavior into its creative approaches.


Turns out it wasn't the case. An editor received the same pitch not long after, and his purchases weren't reflected in that opening line.


However, Amazon's pitch hit too close to home and riled at least one customer enough to rethink shopping at the site.


"I'm still going to be less inclined to order books from Amazon, since they really did keep a record of every title I ever ordered from them," she said. "From now on, it's cash only in a walk-in bookstore. But I'm weird like that."


Actually, a lot of people are weird like that. And they've been weird like that for a long time. According to direct marketing lore, when a travel services direct marketer years ago began a mail pitch to a list of known travelers to Germany with "If you travel to Germany ..." response was great. But when it began the same pitch with "Because you travel to Germany ..." recipients flipped out.


Likewise, if Amazon had begun its wireless phone pitch with something like, "Now you can scratch one more thing off your list of New Year's resolutions," it would have stood far less of a chance of having a negative impact on our now cash-only shopper.


People don't like surprises from marketers. And the drive toward personalized marketing certainly seems to offer more opportunities than ever to deliver them.


What's more, beyond clumsy creative, personalized marketing also offers more chances to make embarrassing database errors.


The same editor who received the Amazon mailing received a press package last week in the mail from a printing company touting its one-to-one printing capabilities. Thing is, his name was spelled incorrectly. Worse, it was spelled incorrectly multiple times -- on the press kit cover, on sample greeting cards, on the letterhead. The whole package was calling out the wrong name over and over again. As a result, what should have been an impressive package simply reflected badly on the company. Better to call him "occupant," or even "friend" for that matter.


All three of these efforts offer the same lesson: They take a position of familiarity with the recipient that they have no right to take.


Here's a revolutionary concept: Recipients of marketing messages generally don't consider merchants their friends, even the merchants they know and like. So maybe marketers should stop trying to form so-called relationships with people and should start thinking in terms of operating from a respectable distance.


This isn't to say marketers shouldn't pursue more personalized marketing and its potential boosts in efficiency. Offering friendly and personalized service is an admirable and increasingly necessary pursuit for any business.


Just don't get too close, OK?
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