Exactly when does personalised marketing get creepy?

Where’s the line between savvy use of data and becoming the marketing equivalent of Joe Goldberg?

May 21, 2019

Exactly when does personalised marketing get creepy?

You’re passionate about your target audience. You’re devoted to understanding them as deeply as possible, looking after them, solving problems they don’t even know they have, monitoring their sentiments and crafting an experience of your brand that reflects what you know they want and need.

In fact, you’re so passionately devoted to your audience that you’re ready to murder their philandering boyfriends, shoot their manipulative best friends, frame their psychiatrists and lock them in a vault when they find out what you’re up to.

Just where do you draw the line between best practice in digital marketing – and becoming Joe Goldberg from the Netflix thriller You?

Millions of viewers have been hooked by the moral ambiguity involved when a bookstore manager decides an aspiring writer is the only girl for him, and does literally everything necessary to build a relationship with her. You’s fans tend to be torn by the way Joe seems to conform to many of the stereotypes of lead male characters in romantic comedies – while also being obsessive, entitled and dangerous. As a digital marketer, that sense of ambiguity is even deeper. Joe uses any form of data available to inform himself about his romantic target’s life and then earn a place in it. It can all feel eerily reminiscent of our increasingly personalised marketing strategies. He’s got a brand and he’s an expert at curating an individual’s experience of that brand to persuade somebody to buy what he’s selling.

The dangers of data breeding entitlement

Beck, the girl that Joe is infatuated with, is very active on social media – and this gives Joe both the opportunity to find out a lot about her, and a sense of ownership on the basis of the material she shares. He feels entitled to make judgments about her life and the value of the people in it – and before too long, he’s acting on these judgments: assaulting and then murdering a philandering boyfriend, and then doing the same to a friend he sees as obsessed and manipulative. Most importantly from Joe’s point of view, his intimate knowledge of Beck is a foundation for becoming intimate with her in life. He follows her, consoles her, invites her to share, opens up at just the right moments, and succeeds in building a relationship.

The addictive appeal of the show comes from its confusing blend of psychotic behaviour and charm. Because we see characters and events from Joe’s perspective, it’s easy to become convinced by his justifications for his actions. Because he’s clever, caustic and funny, it’s tempting to literally let him get away with murder. Reading through the reviews and online commentary of the show, it’s this that most tantalises people – presenting the indefensible in a way that seems natural.

As marketers, it’s worth asking ourselves if we can be guilty of doing something similar – not murderous, but overstepping the mark of what makes our audience feel comfortable. We operate on the basis that we’re entitled to use publicly and legally available data in any way we can to make somebody’s experience of our brand better. But is that too simple a way of looking at it?

Is Joe a savvy digital marketer – or just a psycho?

Consider for a minute how much of Joe’s behaviour might be dressed up as digital marketing best practice. Not the killing, assaulting and obsessive fantasising, of course, but a surprising amount of the rest of it.

Joe has identified a potential customer for his brand that he is committed to acquiring. He uses data intelligently to build a persona around that customer. He maps their relationships, identifies what they need, works out the problems they have – and creates solutions to them. He uses his understanding of what matters to them to engage on an emotional level. He pays close attention to feedback and sentiment analysis, and adjusts his approach in response.

Consider too, how well this all works. It has an increasingly willing audience. Beck doesn’t feel that she’s being stalked. She’s at various points grateful to and fascinated by Joe. She feels fulfilled, she feels supported. She even re-initiates the relationship when Joe appears to have moved on. In fact, this exercise in deeply personalised digital marketing appears to create value for both sides. At least, it does until Beck realises how Joe has been doing what he’s been doing. And then everything goes awfully wrong.

The difference between earning intimacy and demanding it

As digital marketers, we can reassure ourselves that we’re nothing like Joe – because we don’t break the law when it comes to data. Joe may get much of his info from social media, but he also steals Beck’s phone and uses it to spy on all of her communication. He doesn’t just settle for what’s in the public domain. He is a creepy stalker – and we’re not.

As marketers though, we can’t afford to get too complacent on this front. The cleverer we get at using data, the easier it is for audiences to assume that we know more about them as individuals than we actually do – and that we’ve crossed a line somewhere in order to obtain that information. We may be operating within regulations like GDPR – but if we make people feel that we’re tracking them too closely and knowing too much, it can still be damaging.

Earlier this year, I listened in on a fascinating discussion at Advertising Week Europe about developing voice strategies for brands. A lot of that discussion focused on the issue that a large proportion of smart speaker owners are convinced that their device is listening to everything that they do. Patrick Givens, the head of VaynerMedia’s VaynerSmart voice business summed up the dilemma that marketers face in this area really nicely. “As a marketer, if you aren’t thinking about this you’d better be,” he said. “The fact that my speaker doesn’t actually have to listen to me to infer so much about me is almost as scary. The reality of the concern is enough to make it important whether or not the technical stuff is properly understood. After all, in personal life, I would ask you questions to find out stuff about you. I wouldn’t do research and just infer things.”

The more marketers make use of more intimate devices the more we have to respect the way that human beings demand that this area of their life works. Intimacy is earned. We can’t always just step in and declare that we’re entitled to it.

However, it’s also true that marketing audiences are more responsive to content and advertising that’s relevant to them – and that they expect a level of understanding from the brands in their lives. They can send mixed signals, just as much as Beck does. And it’s important to interpret those signals in the right way.

Audiences demand the right kind of personalisation

Personalisation is increasingly important to B2B strategies, whether we’re developing Account-Based Marketing (ABM) programmes that are tailored to individual decision-makers within an organisation, or developing personalised content streams that present very different content to different personas. In survey after survey, B2B buyers and influencers tell us that they want brands to track what they do, track what they’re working on, and deliver content and solutions that relate to it.

In LinkedIn and Edelman’s recent survey of the influence of thought-leadership content on buying decisions, 60% of decision-makers say that content relating to what they are working on at the time is a critical factor prompting them to engage. In our recent State of Sales survey in Europe, over three quarters of buyers said they wouldn’t engage with a sales rep who lacked specific insight into their business – and a similar proportion wanted sales professionals to understand their own specific role. There’s no getting away from it. B2B audiences want brands that invest in understanding them on social media.

There are other data points and considerations that we need to balance this against, though. The State of Sales data shows us pretty unambiguously that the most important factor in closing deals is trust. And trust is dependent on using data in a way that is proportionate – and doesn’t mislead about the nature of the organisation doing the marketing or selling.

Our thought-leadership survey with Edelman shows how B2B buyers use thought-leadership content to vet organisations, assess the calibre of their thinking, and decide whether they are the type of business they see value in partnering with. They want evidence of genuine expertise in the areas that matter to them. This vetting process only works to the buyer’s satisfaction if the relevant content a supplier serves up reflects genuine interest and expertise in those areas. If it’s just an act, if the brand is pretending to care about a subject just to make a particular persona happy, then the audience sees through it – and the consequences can be disastrous for the relationship.

What happens when personalisation doesn’t reflect reality?

Over half of decision-makers say they’ve stopped following a writer or organisation after reading disappointing thought leadership, that delivered far less value than they were led to expect; 42% say such experiences have decreased their respect for a business; 28% say they’ve decided against awarding a piece of business to a company because of them.

The use of data to personalise our approach to audiences is an important and powerful tool. It’s something that accelerates, deepens and strengthens relationships – and this is something that our audiences often appreciate. However, such personalisation is never a substitute for authenticity. It can point to where we have a genuine affinity, alignment and interest. It can showcase the expertise we have and demonstrate how we attach value to things that matter to potential customers. It’s not a license to claim we’re something we’re not. If it’s just something we use to trick our way into our audience’s lives, we won’t stay in those lives for long.

Here’s my quick, personal take on how B2B marketing can use personalisation to be clever and life-enhancing without being creepy – how to earn a relationship with an audience rather than claim we’re entitled to it:

Respect the context and audiences’ expectations of it

The last thing marketers want is our valued prospect looking at their email or their social media feed and asking themselves, “how exactly do they know that about me?” We can’t afford cognitive dissonance – and that’s why it’s vital not to overreach beyond what an audience would reasonably expect. We may be able to make clever inferences on the basis of the data that people make available, but we have to ask if revealing how clever we’re being is going to make prospects feel respected or understood – or make them feel something else.

This is why context matters for personalisation. Are you operating within a context where individual understanding is expected and allowed? Using somebody’s name in an email is fine when that person has had prior contact with your organisation and knows why they are a lead; using their job title in LinkedIn Sponsored Content makes sense because it’s a context in which members have made profile data available and expect relevant content to result from it. Marketers will always get most value from personalisation when audiences know how and why it’s happening.

Respect the journey

It’s easy to think of personalised marketing as a shortcut through the funnel: as if reaching out armed with deep insights can do away with the need for awareness and interest – and catapult you straight into the later stages of the buyer journey. However, any audience expects your understanding of them to be earned – and they want the space to make their own decisions about how relevant you are to them.

Personalised demand generation works best when you’re also investing in awareness-building activity that establishes who you are, what you’re about and why you matter. It works best when it respects the journey. Don’t throw everything you can possibly infer about an audience member at them the first time you get in contact. Tell them about yourself first. Provide space for them to show interest – and build the relationship from there.

Respect the value exchange

Don’t use personalisation as a substitute for genuine investment in value for your audience. It’s dangerously counter-productive to reach out claiming to be an expert in whatever your prospect is engaged with at the time, if you haven’t got the demonstrable expertise to back it up. It’s no good claiming that your values align with what your analysis tells you somebody cares about, if scratching the surface will quickly reveal the opposite. Build relevant propositions and invest in relevant content, then use personalisation to show your true character.

Above all, respect choice

The real mark of a psycho stalker is their obsession with controlling everything their audience does, refusing to take no for an answer, becoming obsessive and possessive. When it comes to marketing, such behaviour isn’t just frustrating and infuriating for the audience. It’s also a massive waste of time and energy for the brand. If you’re personalising your approach to different audiences, you still need to track engagement carefully, identify where people are in their consideration of your business, and give sales teams credible insight about when somebody is engaged – and when they’re not. Personalisation isn’t a magic bullet – and lead quality still matters. Fooling ourselves that we’re charming somebody when we’re not just isn’t healthy. It doesn’t lead to sustainable relationships. And it doesn’t lead to happy endings.