Too Personal? It Depends.

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Ginger Conlon, Editor-in-Chief, Direct Marketing News
Ginger Conlon, Editor-in-Chief, Direct Marketing News

In the ongoing personalization-versus-privacy debate, several realities have surfaced: Many consumers want and expect personalization; some even get annoyed if they've given personal information to a preferred brand and its marketers don't use it. Most consumers will happily trade their data for a discount or free access to a service. Yet, even consumers happy to share data with companies in exchange for relevant experiences and offers may curtail or end their relationship with a company that misuses their data, stalks them incessantly, or otherwise ignores the Golden Rule.

Marketers are well aware of these realities. Fortunately, many already have a thoughtful approach to acquiring and using customer data. Kraft Food Group CMO Deanie Elsner is one of those marketers. Addressing a rapt crowd at The Economist's The Big Rethink, she said, “Our line for collecting data is: Is it in service to the consumer? ‘If I give you my data, will you help me solve a problem or improve my experience?'”

On stage with Elsner was Tariq Shaukat, EVP and CMO of Caesars Entertainment, who takes a similar approach. “If it's core to the business, we collect as much data as customers will accept. We use the ‘sunshine test': If customers find out we're collecting a type of data about them, will they be OK with it?” he said, adding that the company's Total Rewards loyalty program is a key source of customer information that members expect Caesars to use. “It's really a data collection platform. If we don't use that data [to be relevant to Total Rewards members], customers complain.”

“Personal” opinion

One challenge that marketers face is the varied views on how much personalization is too much. On the consumer side, one customer's preferred level of personalization may feel creepy to another. Even a personalization-friendly consumer may feel stalked if an unfamiliar brand gets too chummy. On the marketer side, the definition of personalization can vary as widely as marketers' approaches to using it. For example, what some marketers consider personalization, others consider segmentation, according to Erik Severinghaus, founder and CEO of SimpleRelevance (see “Are Marketers Getting Too Personal?”).

To navigate this tangle of opinions and ensure that they don't irk their customers, some marketers err on the side of caution. According to Janet Bava, manager of direct marketing and customer experience communications for Royal Caribbean International, the cruise line uses only information customers have provided explicitly (e.g., via surveys) or implicitly (e.g., via website behavior) and avoids using third-party data when personalizing communications.

For other marketers, personalization is about using analytics to uncover what's unique about customers and then delivering communications, offers, and an online experience that resonate based on that information. “[Customer] insight helps us to understand not just what makes customers similar, but more important, what makes customers different,” Audrey Messer, director of analytics for FreshDirect, points out in “New Dimensions in Customer Analytics.”

Customers' individuality is exactly what makes personalization so powerful. As Noom's Artem Petakov said at the Big Rethink, “If you want customers to love you, help them self-actualize.”

That is, understand what matters to your customers and use that information wisely.

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