Personalization represents a wide range of tactics, all with one goal in common: relevance. These days, most consumers accept that data is being collected online, but only to an extent, and in exchange for something better:

  • Around 73% of consumers view use of personal information without permission as a violation of privacy, says one survey.
  • Nonetheless, 60% are in favor of companies using their data in exchange for more relevant offers and enhanced overall experiences, reports MarketingLand.

Customers want relevance. Customers also want to feel safe. We know personalization drives relevance, but can personalization drive experiences that are just a little too close for comfort? Can it cross the line and induce “fear of being watched,” effectively making customers run for the hills?

The short answer is: not when it’s done right. If you want to personalize without being creepy, you have to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. 


The Role of Data

So, how do marketers satisfy both of those customer needs — providing relevant experiences and a feeling of safety?

Meaningful relevance comes from first-party data: the data based on your relationship with your customers (as opposed to someone else’s relationship with your customers, or — even worse — someone else’s relationship with an entirely different set of customers). Using first-party data tells your customers: “We’re in the know, but we’ve also got your back.” You can build trust by sticking to first-party data that grows with the customer relationship, and being transparent in how you use it.

With first-party data, you can understand individual users (not just segments), treat them as such via incredible experiences, and ultimately avoid “outsourcing” your relevance to other distribution channels (e.g. social networks). It’s like a conversation with your users, where you are in control of the input and output to deliver personalized (read: relevant, not creepy) experiences to audiences.


5 Guidelines for Personalizing Without Being Creepy

#1: Demonstrate that you understand what your users want — not that you’re tracking their every move

Possibly an obvious point, but crucial to understand in the context of personalization. We are in a transition phase: 8 years ago, ad retargeting was seen as intrusive, and now it’s commonplace; digital natives are especially comfortable with (and expect) tailored experiences. In a survey from Magnetic and Retail Touchpoints, half of all consumers wished ads were more tailored to their interests, and more than half expected to see personalized ads.

It’s up to marketers to create experiences that speak less to specific actions and more to the needs and interests they imply. For example, this AT&T ad encouraging me to “map my routes anywhere” is pretty good (makes me want to travel with my phone!), but if this ad said, “I see you recently traveled to Argentina because AT&T knows these things, and you should get an international plan so we don’t charge you like crazy,” it would be too much.




#2: Amp up the relevance 

To marketers who looking for the north star of personalization and non-creepy strategy, look no further than Amazon. Done right, personalization gives your users better experiences by providing relevant information to the right people at the right time. Amazon has upped consumer expectations in this department.

It’s true that Amazon is collecting tons of data about each user and their on-site behavior, but they don’t use it to bombard people with the same products, hoping that they’ll eventually break down and buy one of them (that’s what bad retargeting looks like). Instead, Amazon uses machine learning to pinpoint a wide variety of products that are relevant to each shopper and creates a discovery-based experience. The experience doesn’t scream, “BUY THIS NOW!” It says, “Hey, we thought you might find these things interesting. No pressure.”




#3: Make your users feel welcome

Personalization provides the best hospitality around. When you use it for people who’ve taken a  leap of faith and invited you into their inboxes, you create a safe zone that makes them feel as welcome as possible.

A personalized welcome series is one way to start a new relationship on the right foot. It lets subscribers know that they can expect relevance every step of the way, because you’re not going to clutter their inboxes with impersonal blasts.

#4: Give your users control

We’ve already covered non-creepy email and on-site personalization, but they’re not the only channels out there. The new wave of messengers and chat bots allow marketers to take advantage of a frictionless medium, one that has grown immensely in popularity and become central to everyday lives. They offer easy access to mobile engagement and can make customers feel at home with a familiar medium. Moreover, the instant back-and-forth gives users a bit more control of the conversation.

Quartz is a great example of a publisher taking on in-app chat in a personal way. It has an extremely simple interface: it tells you about something newsworthy and gives you two response options, which are different every time (and often funny). The options boil down to “tell me more” and “skip to the next story.” If you want more in-depth coverage, you can often click on one of the speech bubbles to see a full-length article.

Right now, the app suggests the same content to every user, but imagine if it learned from the stories users chose and used that data to inform its suggestions? That combination of chat and robust personalization would make each user feel like they’ve got their own personal assistant.




#5: Think of it like getting to know someone

Ever met a marketer convinced that personalization is the opposite of what their customers need? That it eliminates serendipity and natural browsing habits? In this case, it’s easier to compare any given website to a brick-and-mortar store. In the latter case, you know when someone comes in and which products catch their eye, so you know what to recommend — and when to recommend it. Data-tracking and personalization provide this level of service in digital world, to help us do the same thing humans have been doing for years: connect.

At its best, personalization builds trust by demonstrating effort. It shows that you’ve taken the time to understand and respond to each person’s needs.

To all the creepers out there? Good riddance.

Want to learn how to personalize to anonymous users? Check out our eBook.

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