Walking the line between ‘personalised’ and ‘creepy’ marketing

July 7, 2020

Back in 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal brought the unethical gathering, sale, and use of data into the spotlight. The public were horrified. They felt violated. Huge amounts of trust were lost, and marketers have been struggling ever since to regain that trust.

When the GDPR came into effect, it was welcomed by the public. With the law protecting their interests, audiences felt more in control of their data. In theory, this is good news for brands. Now that the misuse of data is firmly prohibited, it’s easier for customers to trust that brands are using their data responsibly.

However, not all of that old anxiety has gone away. Many people are very protective of their personal data. Given how much we rely on data to make communications personal and relevant for our customers, this is a big problem for marketers.

Even when someone has explicitly consented to their data being used for personalisation, emails which are personalised in the wrong way can still feel creepy and intrusive. There are boundaries within personalisation that need to be respected.

Think of it this way: even if you told someone your address and invited them to pop round sometime, it would still be creepy if they turned up in the middle of the night, or used their visit to go through all your cupboards, or popped round twice a day every single day.

When someone has shared their data with you, there are boundaries to using it.  

Boundaries vary from person to person. What one person finds friendly, another person will consider rude and intrusive. How do you find the line? 

To really know where the boundaries are, you need to do some serious research into your audience. Here are our tips below on where to start.  

When does personalisation feel creepy in marketing?

As a general rule, personalised email marketing feel creepy when…

  • The brand is using information the customer hasn’t given them – Let’s get this one out of the way first. Using information the customer hasn’t given you and/or hasn’t consented to your using isn’t just creepy. It’s unethical and it’s illegal. Don’t buy in data from third parties, don’t phish data from your customers, don’t splash their data around the internet (or even the office!). Ethical considerations aside, it’s not worth either the GDPR fines you’ll be hit with, or the huge loss of customer trust.
  • The brand is using customer information in a harmful way – Several weight loss MLMs have come under fire for their reps reaching out to leads in insensitive ways. Usually, this has taken the form of the reps not-so-subtly body-shaming their contacts and suggesting that they need to buy their weight loss products. This is an example of harmful personalisation. It is perfectly possible to personalise your marketing to take data like weight, health conditions etc into account – but it has to be done sensitively and with respect. Body-shaming and the like just ain’t it.
  • When the personalisation seems irrelevant/inauthentic  Personalisation is important for connecting with customers – but shoehorning it into messages just for the sake of it will come off as weird and inauthentic. If the personalisation is neither relevant nor to the point, leave it out.
  • When the brand makes assumptions based on your personal details  This goes back to using information in a harmful way. For example, don’t assume that every customer in a more elderly segment is in frail health, don’t assume that customers who have told you that they’re overweight want to lose weight, don’t assume that girls like pink and boys like blue… 
  • When the brand seems to know too much – Nobody wants to feel like they’re being stalked. When personalising, go easy on the specific personal details. You can personalise in ways which add value without reminding people that you know where they live, when their birthday is, how old they are and so on (well, unless these things are relevant to the message – more on that in a moment!)

Marketing is not creepy when:

  • It adds value – Using personalisation to give the customer what they want is usually a good call. Here at datasine, we use creative data analysis to gain a deeper understanding of what the customer likes. Content can then be tailored and personalised to show them things that they get value out of seeing. It’s authentic, honest, unobtrusive personalisation which adds value for the customer.
  • It is relevant – For example, messaging someone and casually mentioning that you know when their birthday is is both irrelevant and, frankly, a bit weird. On the other hand, messaging someone on their birthday with a ‘Happy birthday!’ greeting combined with a discount, gift, or special birthday offer is both relevant and provides value for the customer. 
  • It comes naturally – Don’t force it. If you’re finding yourself struggling to personalise content (either by putting in aspects you know the customer enjoys, or through things like addressing them directly), it’s probably a sign that the content doesn’t need personalising. 
  • Consent is clear – To ensure that all parties are consenting to your use of data for personalisation, be clear and transparent at all times. Explain to them what you need the data for, how you’ll be using it, why you’ve used it in this instance, where it’s stored, and so on. Make sure that you’re extra clear at data gathering points (signup forms, for example). Let the customer know exactly what data they’re giving you, and make sure that they’re fully in control at all times.

Relevance, value, and consent are never creepy

Every brand wants to enjoy a friendly relationship with their customers. But there’s a big difference between being a friend and being a stalker. 

Friendship is reciprocal. Friends trust one another, and that trust is built on foundations of consent, respect, and mutual understanding. Friends also provide one another with value that they couldn’t get from anyone else.

If your marketing actions aren’t based on consent, trust, and reciprocal value exchange, then you may be being more of a stalker than a friend. 

But, if you can nail friendly personalisation, you’ll reap the rewards of a fulfilling brand/customer relationship for years to come.

For more information about how to make your creative personal to your audience, contact us.