Hyper-personalization: The fine line between impressive and invasive

The personalization we know and use today is hyper-personalization. People now expect it but don’t want their privacy invaded. They want the services and convenience they get from giving away some of their data, but when companies start to show that they know too much, customers don’t like it. This is the privacy paradox. 

Though, it’s not much of a paradox, really, when you look at it from the angle of common sense: you want your local butcher to remember you like baby back ribs, and you may even smile if they add an extra half a pound when you buy some for your birthday. 

But you will stop liking that butcher if:

  • Their neighbor stores also know your birthday (and they startle you when they offer discounts as you pass by)
  • The butcher starts pushing chicken wings at you just because you like ribs

In a small town, that might work. In a city? No. On the worldwide web? Definitely not. 

Brands and organizations naturally do not want to be or appear cavalier about privacy and face a backlash on social media. One wrong move can go viral and tarnish reputations forever. 

So how can brands provide a personalized experience without creeping out their customers? And what’s the difference between truly listening to your audience and seemingly spying on them and their interactions? 

What customers want and don’t want 

The GDPR’s rules boil down to consent. Everything has to have consent, from website cookies to email campaigns. 

With data breaches all too common, people want to trust their data is safe and that companies are mindful of the responsibility they have to ensure that their information stays safe. 

You need data for personalized marketing, and it’s what you do with that data that keeps you in your customers’ good graces…or not. 

Customers expect you to track their data and tailor their experiences, and your communication with them based on that. And that’s it. That’s all they want you to do with their data. There’s such a thing as acceptable and unacceptable personalization

Staying on the side of cool and impressive, rather than creepy and invasive

“Being creepy” infringes on the trust companies/brands struggle hard to build. It doesn’t take much to destroy hard-sought goodwill. 

No assumptions

Acceptable personalization–marketing techniques that impress your customers–provide experiences that make your customer feel cared for. Greeting them by name. Upsells based on their previous purchases. Even size suggestions if you’re in retail (saving time and disappointment!).  

Unacceptable personalization, by contrast, annoys and creeps out your customers. This is when companies assume or presume based on the data they have on their customers. A Harvard experiment found that people don’t like it when businesses make these inferences. 

Acceptable: Using information customers have declared about themselves. 

  • You are seeing this ad/message based on information that you provided about yourself. 

Unacceptable: Making presumptions/assumptions based on information customers have declared about themselves. 

  • You are seeing this ad based on information that we inferred about you. E.g., Sending prenatal supplements discounts to someone who bought, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” It was a gift to their sister. The buyer is not pregnant.  

No third-party sharing

It’s also unacceptable personalization when companies share their customer data to third parties, whether or not they asked for consent. Almost no one reads Terms and Conditions that websites and tools have about their use of consumer data. 

Going back to our example above with the friendly butcher, the butcher–and all businesses–should keep their customer data to themselves. The privacy and security of this data is part of the compliance to the GDPR. The GDPR is now the established standard, and your audience won’t like it if other websites are getting their data without their consent. 

Acceptable: Using the customer data and information for your own marketing, according to standard consent. 

Unacceptable: Sharing customer data and information to third parties using “dark patterns” where you weren’t clear that they were giving consent to third-party data sharing. 

Regulations: light against dark

What are dark patterns? Dark patterns “are deceptive user interfaces in websites and apps designed to intentionally manipulate users into taking actions they would otherwise not take under normal circumstances.” 

This is from the press release on the new legislation introduced by U.S. senators Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) in April this year, the Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act, that bans the use of dark patterns. 

The GDPR, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) passed in 2018, and now the DETOUR Act, all serve as guidelines on how you can stick to the good side of personalization: serving your goals through intelligently serving your audience. 

User-centric, clear, and transparent

Staying on the good side of personalization doesn’t have to be restrictive. The principles stand on a foundation of trust and transparency. 

So be open. Everything stems from there. 

1. Tell them why and what for: Justify why you’re collecting data, and be transparent about what you’ll use it for. For example, getting your customers’ location: Is it for local discounts? Why do you need their emails? For order updates and confirmations? 

If you’ll also use their emails for your newsletters and promotions, say so. 

Just as you have About and Meet the Team pages, consider a page or footer for “How we handle your privacy” or “Your security and privacy.” 

The more data you handle–purchases, payment methods, addresses–the more visible this content and the assurance should be. 

2. Give back control. Users should retain control over what data they want to share and what the brand can use and not use. This eliminates the “blanket consent” that makes many users shy away from any personalization.

Customers should always be aware that they can specify and control their communications preferences.

Giving control to your customers (“unsubscribe,” “Set your email preferences,” “Don’t see this again,” etc.) goes a long way in avoiding potential privacy issues. So does upfront assurance that you won’t give away their data. 

3. Be proactive. 

Remind your customers that they have control. Invite them to:

  • Make adjustments on how they want to receive communications from you. 
  • Give you feedback on how you’re doing and what you can do better. 
  • Give you specific pieces of data instead of just taking it and risking inferences instead of real insight. 

Incentivize the time they’ll take to edit their settings and give data and feedback. E.g., Give away a discount in exchange. That’s a win-win-win for customer trust, satisfaction, and conversion! 

4. Show them you know what you’re doing. An impressive customer experience before, during and after their transactions with your brand shows your audience you are worth their trust–you’re using their data to serve them. 

5. Test your hyper-personalization first. Another chance to impress your customers: Being open about testing new marketing techniques and inviting them to it. They like participation. Again, incentivize the feedback you’ll request. 

This way, you can detect any intrusive messaging early and correct it before you roll it out. 

Hyper-personalization helps brands achieve goals, yes, but ultimately gives audiences a faster, better experience. It’s here to stay, and audiences want it to stay, and brands just have to finesse their personalization to stay helpful and impressive, not creepy or intrusive. 

Dan Baird

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