How to stop Personalisation from Backfiring


Personalisation in marketing is a powerful tool that can inspire customer loyalty and build advocacy. Of course, if not handled properly, you can unbalance your entire brand experience and lose business as a result.

Personalisation in Marketing

Know your audience

Most of us have, at one point or another, received an email with our names misspelt or with an incorrect title. There’s no excuse for these basic salutation errors, and while consumers may look past them as they’re all too common, they don’t inspire brand loyalty or advocacy.

But personalisation isn’t just about the name in the subject line: it’s also about the content of the email. For example, I recently received an email from a sportswear company advertising its new sports bra. Given that I am a man, this is a pretty poor show from a brand that knows my title, name, age, weight, height, food intake AND gender.

There are plenty of other examples: the well-known pension provider that sent letters of condolence to customers who didn’t have any cause to receive them. The financial services company that sent rejection letters to people who had never requested loans in the first place.

We see brands struggling to understand fluctuations in things like open rates and click rates, but at a very basic level, sending a male oriented email to a database that is largely female would obviously negatively affect these metrics. In a post GDPR world, if a consumer has gone to the trouble of sharing their personal data with you, you need to use it correctly.

Change the frequency

In addition to correct salutations and relevant content, personalisation also includes the regularity of contact. Many brands simply track open rates and click rates. They don’t understand that the customers who engage with their emails typically represent only half, if that, of their target audience. Timing is crucial here. To encourage greater engagement, when you send your emails is just as important as the ‘to who’ and the ‘about what’.

Altering the frequency of communication (or, more to the point, personalising the frequency), gives you the opportunity to shift the behaviour of a non-engager. Instead of a weekly Tuesday morning email that gets deleted immediately because that’s when your customer is in back-to-back meetings, a monthly Thursday afternoon email cuts through the usual noise and grabs their attention. Personalising the frequency and timing of emails is especially important for brands that send very regular communications.

Be culturally aware

Personalisation needs to consider various cultures – especially when communicating globally. The colour white, for example, means different things in different countries. You, depending on your culture, may associate it with marriage, but in Ethiopia and some parts of India, white is the colour of mourning. Visual imagery is an important element in personalisation and any insensitive connotations (even if completely unintended) can upset individual customers. It’s always best to do your research and tailor your communications to the targeted region as well as the audience.

Don’t be creepy

Getting personalisation wrong through ignorance is one thing. But knowing too much can backfire just as badly. Remember your place in the world and don’t try to be your customers’ best friend. People value their privacy, so even if you have post-GDPR marketing consent to track and store data, that doesn’t mean you have to use every single little bit of information.

Online browsing behaviour can be revealing but businesses are getting overexcited. Imagine looking at some dream holiday destination websites one evening, only to receive travel brochures for those exact locations in your physical mailbox a few days later. Sounds a bit spooky right? Well, one travel company did just that only to be inundated with criticism and complaints.

Keep testing

To get personalisation right, you need to keep your data tidy and your content relevant. You also need to ensure 100% compliance at all times or risk running into legal problems. Updating information regularly may seem like more of a hassle than its worth, but using old or outdated data can cause embarrassment – and even reputational damage.

Having said that, we have seen brands use this to their advantage. Something that has become common is the ‘Whoops…’ or ‘We owe you an apology…’ type subject lines that drive higher open rates. Indeed, we saw a case of an email being sent with no subject line that generated one of the highest ever open rates for a brand. An interesting idea would be to deliberately mis-personalise an email in order to drive a higher open rate and to capture data about that customer. E.g. ‘Dear Unknown L’ – the contents would then be something like: ‘We’d love to get to know you better, please click here to update your profile.’ Expect to see more of these ‘shot to nothing’ approaches to try and drive activity from low engagement opt-in customers as GDPR makes marketers sweat their compliant databases harder.

Be aware though – get too cutesy and you risk alienation and unsubscribes. A well-known merchandising company decided to rebrand its email server ahead of one of the big Star Wars movie releases to make their announcements come from Darth Vader. Unfortunately, this didn’t resonate with their target audience: 40% of these emails were deleted outright. Testing in batches, even when you get it wrong, can ultimately help you get it right in the long run and limits the damage you can do.

Marketers are increasingly focused on tailoring their companies’ brand experiences at an individual level to boost consumer engagement and loyalty. However, targeted communications can backfire and must be treated with care. Make sure your data is up to date, your messaging is on-point and your tone is friendly without being too familiar. Get those three things right and you’ll go a long way to getting personalisation right too.

Author: Phil Hearn

Phil Hearn is a strategic CRM consultant at Celerity. Celerity is a data-driven marketing agency and systems integrator specialising in the Adobe Marketing Cloud.