What Everyone Gets Wrong With Personalization

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Personalization is good – if you do it right. Darren Guarnaccia breaks down how you can avoid using it as a weapon of mass irritation, instead changing it into something that can offer real value to consumers.

Personalization has to be one of the most abused words in today’s marketing world. It’s the answer to everything it seems. It’s talked about as a strategy, a goal, an outcome or an ideal state. Honestly, this drives me nuts. Personalization is a tactic, nothing more. It’s a way to deliver specific content to specific people. If you’re really feeling saucy, you can even toss in the right time and place. But it’s still just a tactic. It’s not a strategy. Brands use personalization to achieve a strategy. But that’s it. It’s a tool, not the goal. 

If personalization isn’t a strategy, then what is? This is usually the place where some talking head comes in to preach about digital transformation on the road to customer-centric nirvana. Sure, if you want to boil the ocean, be my guest.

I’ll define this in a much simpler way. How about a strategy where you earn a customer’s confidence (and ultimately their trust) by doing what you said you’d do in a reliable way? Where you’re transparent in how you deal with them, by putting their interests first in your interactions, and by being relevant to them in a way that removes friction? With that strategy in mind, the intention of how you’d approach personalization changes radically. Now, you have a way to apply the tactic of personalization in a way that satisfies your customer’s needs, and creates an enduring customer relationship built on trust and commitment.

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In a nutshell, personalization is being deployed as a weapon of mass irritation, not as a tool to earn a customer’s trust.

What’s wrong with how brands typically do personalization? Mostly, it’s in the lack of a strategy. Too often, I see personalization being used to hyper target customers – using questionable data, acquired in questionable ways, trying to offer something that too often crosses the line into Creepyville. The data used is typically third party data. Of course, most of this is going away in Europe anyway due to GDPR, but if it wasn’t, it isn’t really even a very good signal to determine a customer's intent or interest. It’s rarely used to remove friction for the customer using relevance, nor is it used to demonstrate competence and reliability in remembering customers in order to deliver value to them. In a nutshell, it’s being deployed as a weapon of mass irritation, not as a tool to earn a customer’s trust.

So how can we do personalization well? You start with the intention to build trust and commitment with your customers. You do this through being relevant to them in a way that removes friction for them, because you’ve taken the time to understand their purpose. Next, you’re transparent with them in how you’re using their data to serve them. Your actions clearly demonstrate you’re putting their interests at the forefront. Lastly, you act reliably, showing you remember and recognize them in a way that serves them best. You’re looking for places where you can deliver value back to them because of what they’ve shared with you. If all of this sounds like strategy, you’d be right, because personalization is a tactic that performs best when underpinned by a strategy.

I’m seeing more and more brands start to talk about proactively building customer trust, including several public companies putting it in their annual reports. This gives me hope that we’ll start to use tactics like personalization to serve our customers in the best way, helping them achieve their purpose. I hope your brand will be one of them soon, but in the meantime, I’ll queue up my favourite Billy Joel tune.


Darren Guarnaccia is CMO at Lytics, the first customer data platform that helps brands orchestrate relevant marketing with built-in data science

Darren has been working in the marketing technology world since the original dot-com boom and is a champion of building experiences customers actually want.

Read more about Darren here