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How to Use Personalization without Being a Creep

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Customer data is the key to relevant marketing, and intelligent content is making personalization more accessible than it’s ever been. And while customers generally love to see content that’s tailored to them, there can be a huge disconnect is that content isn’t executed correctly. People don’t always realize that their taps, clicks, and cookies are creating a rich profile of data and are prone to freak out when things go a step too far. Can you even blame them? So, what’s a savvy marketer to do?

Tread carefully. You need to find a way to personalize without being a creep, and we know how you can pull it off.

Build a relationship

Take off your marketing hat and just think about it for a moment. You wouldn’t show up to a first date, order some coffee, then mention a vacation photo your date posted on Instagram over a year ago. Despite having the best of intentions, you’ve landed yourself in stalker territory. Everyone knows that kind of information is easily accessible, but that doesn’t make it any more of an appropriate reference to use before you actually know someone. We know better than to get too personal too soon.

Your personalized content should work in a fairly similar way, gradually incorporating more information over time as your audience learns to trust you. First names, purchase history, and rewards points aren’t particularly wild, but tie in details like location and demographics and you start to hit much closer to home. It takes time to build that kind of relationship, and it’s best to avoid using personal data without context. That scares the normal folk.

The Minnesota Lynx got it right:


Their email features image personalization that pulls in each ticket holder’s seat location to give them a customized time to be at their seats, along with a live countdown to the event’s start. I’d hardly call this light personalization, but when you just bought tickets to an event, it isn’t surprising to see that the seller knows your seat number. They met their subscribers where they were and relied on data that was relevant and appropriate. Which brings us to the next point.

Contextualize it

People are generally more comfortable with sharing data when they feel like they’re getting value in return. The best way to build that trust over time is to make sure you serve up content that’s relevant, valuable, and engaging. That means saying no to personalizing for personalization’s sake. It should be more than just a party trick.

When you’re ready to incorporate personalization into your content, you need to keep the value add at the front of your mind. The line between creepy and relevant is context. So if your data use makes sense for your brand while keeping the customer’s journey and needs in consideration, that location targeting will come across as delightful instead of jarring. It’s about ramping up personalization based on the number and quality of interactions you’ve had with a customer.

Let’s take a look at this great email from Virgin Holidays:

Virgin Holidays

To promote a 10% discount, Virgin Holidays used image personalization and location targeting to show subscribers that the sale would get them 10% closer to a vacation hotspot. The context makes complete sense, both because of the relevant context and because location is such a vital part of Virgin Holidays’ business.

It all comes down to this

At the end of the day, customers just don’t anticipate hundreds of data points about them to be readily accessible…even when they are. So, here’s a question to ask yourself when you’re not sure if you’ve strayed into creepy data territory: “Does my audience know I have this information, and will they freak out if they realized I used it?”

Let’s check out a great relationship-based example of personalization:

Dow Jones

The Wall Street Journal created a personalized year-in-review campaign to engage subscribers and showcase how they interacted with the publication. This intelligent content swapped out based on engagement, using custom logic to make sure that less-engaged readers weren’t greeted by data that would creep them out. As for the loyal followers? They received a highly-personalized email featuring the number of articles they’ve read, their favorite section, and more.

If you want to learn about collecting data without crossing the line, check out our post: 5 Tips for Collecting Data for your Email Marketing (Without Being Creepy)

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