When Personalization Backfires

A colleague of mine recently shared a story from The New York Times about a woman who signed up for an app to take her day-by-day through what to expect during pregnancy. Sadly, she lost the baby soon after, and let the app know. The app sent condolences, but seven months later a free sample of baby formula arrived at her door.

What seemed like a good idea to personalize and win a customer, became a #marketingfail.

What likely happened?

Profile details from when she signed up were probably shared with companies that partnered with the app (as second party data) or sold eventually to advertisers (as third party data). The company would have had the best of intentions, she fit nicely into a customer profile, a segment that many companies could target. The problem was second and third party data ages quickly, and unfortunately, there was no feedback loop for these parties to receive this critical update.

Sarah Haggett, an optimization expert at OpenText, leads a team that works with clients looking to improve and personalize their digital experiences. She regularly cautions against using data that’s even a few months old.

“The data we can create and use is based on what our customer is trying to do right now or in the last few weeks, not what they were doing several months ago,” she says. “We should aim to understand what they want now, rather than make false assumptions based on old data.”

Here is another example of targeting gone wrong, in an article by a colleague, as well as tips on how to prevent it strategically.

Treat target audiences as human beings

Marketing is often focused on acquiring new customers. Getting them to register. Getting them to buy, and then keeping them buying.

We have many options now with marketing technology – an estimated 3,874 marketing technology solutions, according to chiefmartec.com – and of course, so much data about site visitors, customers, prospects, etc. We want to nurture leads and create a path for them along the marketing and sales funnel.

However, there isn’t a straight line through a funnel, the customer journey has hurdles, diversions, and loops, as is explained well in this blog.  Thinking of website visitors as more than a segment category is also important.

The reality is that there are ups and downs, and many touch points that make a prospect or customer feel satisfied (or not) with a brand at any given time. The customer service experience impacts how they feel. Marketing efforts impact them. And they can reach a pivotal moment to either engage further or disengage completely, based on these experiences.

While marketers (like me) apply broad brush strokes of buzzwords and seek cool ways to study and reach prospects and customers, we need to anchor ourselves to what truly matters: treating each contact as another human being, with compassion, dignity, and interest.

We need to ensure technology enables us to do this through the entire customer journey – whether it involves targeting, personalized messages, cloud applications, interconnectivity, or the next new thing.

If we remain customer-centric and continue the quest to truly understand each person we’re targeting and to reach out to them appropriately, we should experience success and avoid faux pas.

Denise Douglas

Denise is a product marketer. She writes about customer experience management, marketing technology, and web optimization.

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