Branding Business Email Marketing Social Media Marketing

How Personal is too Personal for Brands?

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Personalization. It’s a weighted word that carries the burden of making the world of mass marketing … personal. It’s no small feat. In a world of hundreds of trackable data points, digital signals, modeling, and performance reports, we must effectively draw real connections, evoke real emotions, and get personal. It’s critical to not only say, “I know you.” but also prove it in every interaction you have with your audience — modern consumers actually demand it. We all know the value of the data we give in every online action. 

With loyalty becoming more elusive, building a personal and more intimate relationship with customers is seen as a brand’s point of difference. Consumers expect brands to use their data and preferences wisely in order to provide value, surprise, and delight. Twilio Segment’s “The State of Personalization Report 2022” found that 62% of consumers would stop being loyal to a brand if their experiences weren’t personalized. On the other hand, 49% will become repeat buyers if personalization is offered.

Many brands already know how to personalize and have been doing it for years, but the topic has become increasingly more complex as more consumers worry about privacy. Although some companies are concerned about losing their brand voices if they personalize too much, the main issue with personalization revolves around losing trust with consumers. When done wrong, personalized brand experiences can make consumers uncomfortable, creeped out, or uneasy.

However, personalized brand experiences can improve customer satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy when done right. A successful personalization strategy will deliver at the right time and place, use information consumers willingly share, bring context to the moment you’re trying to personalize, and surprise your consumers with the thrill of the unexpected. 

The Challenge with Personalization

Personalization, if based on personal data shared by the consumer with the assurance that it will be used as intended, will result in better service and no surprises. 

Problems can arise when brands show up in the wrong place at the wrong time. If someone is looking for a new pair of shoes online, they don’t want a healthcare brand reminding them of their hemorrhoids. Who’s to say that advertisement won’t appear in their living room during their Super Bowl party? You must be strategic about how you use consumer data. Otherwise, you may lose your customers’ trust.

Let’s be honest: Personalization can also get a little too intimate. Although humans want to be seen, we also have a corresponding need for privacy. If you start personalizing ads based on things consumers haven’t explicitly shared with you, they may question whether they can trust your brand. There is a huge difference between getting targeted ads for chocolate on your phone after scrolling through a flower website versus getting that same ad after talking about your plans for date night. One feels consensual because, for the most part, people understand that their clicks are tracked when they navigate through a webpage. But the latter can feel very intrusive, leaving customers wondering if you were somehow able to listen in on their private phone conversations. 

The way brands personalize today can also put them at risk for demographic stereotyping. Sometimes brands can over-personalize and rely too heavily on observed patterns and behavior, keeping consumers pigeonholed as specific “types” of people. What if there is more to that 50-year-old mom down the street than what’s listed in her Google Search history? What if your personalization tactics are actually limiting her in some way? Brands need to refrain from boxing people in or making assumptions about their decision-making. Human behavior is often unpredictable and irrational. 

How to Avoid Overstepping and Personalize with a People-First Mindset

The last thing you want to do is push your customers away in your effort to make them feel seen. To avoid coming across as creepy, making damaging ad placement mistakes, and over-personalizing, try incorporating the following modern-day marketing strategies.

1. Create a Personalization Index for Different Channels

In order to make the right decision on when and where to deliver a personalized ad, you must have a system in place. We recommend something called scenario planning. Develop your own playbook where you can quickly assess what someone’s behaviors and actions may be telling you. What is your consumer specifically asking for? What do you need to deliver? Then, based on that information, you must determine how to measure your potential creepiness as you decide when and where to deliver that ad.

Maybe you take privacy into account when deciding placement. For example, an email or text ad is way more intimate than a social media or webpage ad. You may want to take the email route if you are serving up an ad for a new medication. If you are delivering an ad for a new shoe in your collection, Hulu would be a harmless method of delivery. 

Oftentimes, creating these personalization indexes can be difficult. Bringing in an agency focused on people, strategy, and journey work could help you get started. An agency with this type of expertise can help you develop a system for deciding which scenarios your brand might want to engage in. The right agency can also help with data analysis, business objectives, mapping journey moments and touchpoints, continual testing, monitoring, and optimization. 

2. Look at Privacy Best Practices in Other Countries

Just because you have the information doesn’t mean you need to use it. Many consumers know brands are tracking them, but they also have an idea of what this looks like and what they are comfortable with. Consider looking into the European General Data Protection Regulation for ideas on personalizing while protecting your brand reputation. These privacy laws are only practiced in Europe, but many U.S. companies who sell in Europe abide by these laws in the U.S. because they are just that good. It is always better to practice judgment when delivering ads than to damage your reputation by coming across as creepy. Under the GDPR, companies must clearly explain what information they’re asking consumers to share and what they plan to do with it. This two-way transparency allows for greater trust and restores balance in the relationship. 

3. Aim to Surprise and Delight

Brands need to recognize that their customers are multidimensional and will certainly change over the course of time. As mentioned above, many brands can fall into the trap of neatly sorting their customers into boxes based on their past preferences. To successfully personalize in 2023, brands must know that personas are out. Rather than focusing on who your consumers are, focus on what they’re doing. Embrace customers as people and offer them things that don’t fit a model or stereotype. Use their reactions to new content to learn more about their preferences organically. 

Spotify is a great example of a brand that realizes human preferences are constantly changing. While it suggests songs based on past song choices, it also curates playlists completely different from what a consumer would normally listen to, providing a sandbox for consumers to explore and evolve. By taking this approach, Spotify continues to learn more about its consumers, and consumers continue to learn more about themselves. Don’t assume you already know your audience. Use the tools available to test the water, suggest new ideas, and show people that you care about who they actually are, not just the box they fall into.

To successfully implement personalization, you must put yourself in consumers’ shoes. Just like with any friendship, there are boundaries between brands and consumers. Crossing those lines can cause a divide. Personalization in 2023 is going to take more effort than it has in the past. But with a little help, you can avoid overstepping and maintain strong connections with your audience.

About the author


Kasie Brunson

Kasie Brunson leads the experience strategy team at Barefoot, which is responsible for developing human and business insight, digital strategy development, integrative planning, and performance optimization. With over a decade at Barefoot, Kasie has led consumer journey mapping, digital strategy development, and content planning across multiple industries. She’s established a center of excellence for content strategy development within Barefoot and the global RAPP agency network.