Every marketer is being told that personalisation is the number one priority. But when does personalisation become too personal? When does the great customer offer segue into the over familiar communication that has a detrimental effect on the relationship? Right now, attitudes vary from companies adopting tactical and ill focused attempts at personalisation that risk both customer relationships and brand reputation, to those too scared to embark on any activity without detailed, individual customer level data for fear of getting it wrong. And both approaches are clearly flawed, according to Nick Keating, vice president (EMEA) for Maxymiser.
Right now companies lack both skills and confidence but that is no excuse to shy away from personalisation. There isn't a brand in the developed world that hasn't had a discussion about personalisation over the past few months. Creating some form of personal connection with customers is, without doubt, being presented as the number one requirement for every marketer. The problem is that, right now, very few marketers can even define exactly what personalisation should mean to that brand, and its customers - and even those that can are, quite frankly, terrified of over-stepping the mark.
Everyone has an example of 'creepy' personalisation; those flawed and clumsy attempts to get close to the customer that have spectacularly backfired. The Starbucks' decision to ask each customer for his or her first name that could then be written on a cup and yelled at top volume across the shop to the intense embarrassment of the vast majority, is a prime example.
Given the negative impact not only on specific customers but also to the overall brand of such high-profile mistakes, it is no wonder that marketers are approaching personalisation with a degree of fear.
Defining what personalisation means to a brand and its customers is, without doubt, tricky. Despite the fact that marketing gurus have been writing about the vision of the one to one customer relationship for decades, today there is no best practice approach, no clear definition and companies have limited skillsets. For some brands, personalisation is nothing more than reflecting the recipient's name within an outbound email. Others may attempt to then ensure that any customer clicking through to a specific landing page also sees relevant messaging.
But this is hardly the personalisation being bandied about by pundits, many of whom insist that personalisation has to be to a segment of one - an activity that cannot be achieved without lots of great, individual level customer information to support a continuous, relevant dialogue. The truth is that most companies don't have that depth of information; many don't have enough to say; and the majority have to face the fact that in some markets consumers prefer to stay anonymous until the point of purchase. For example, while financial services companies can encourage existing customers to log in pretty early in the interaction, retailers typically find customers only login once they are ready to pay, limiting options for relevant, timely communications.
So where does that leave the bemused marketer? A key point to accept is that personalisation does not have to wait for the individual; a segment of one is not the starting point - a brand can go a long way with aggregate level approaches that can be just as valuable in improving the customer experience. Furthermore, personalisation is not just about messaging, promotions and products; it is about the entire customer journey and experience. From the simple yet highly effective approach of offering business and personal air travellers a different online journey to pushing a financial services consumers toward live chat after a certain length of time on a page, personalisation is about changing the user experience based on an individual's real time interaction with the web site.
So what next? Brands cannot avoid taking the steps toward personalisation indefinitely. But they also cannot afford to get this wrong. There is a straightforward answer to this problem - verify your approach to personalisation using AB and multivariate testing techniques. There is no need to deploy a new personalisation initiative across the entire customer base without understanding how it will be received. Whether it is personalised offers and content or a segment specific customer journey, optimising that experience on a subset of the audience, is key to determining the viability and value of the approach.
Personalisation must also be strategic. Right now, attempting to personalise without a strong test and learn foundation in place that can provide instant insight into what works - or doesn't - is tactical and will never deliver long term business value. Companies that have been successful in optimisation have had a very structured, rigorous approach closely aligned to overall business objectives; they have not expected every optimisation exercise to deliver uplift but within a strategy they expect an overall ROI. Personalisation is no different. In today's 'innovate and fail fast' digital business model brands need to push the boundaries - but safely. Failure is part of the continual learning process and that requires a way of rapidly assessing the performance of new personalisation initiatives.
Any brand that is too scared to personalise for fear of disengaging the customer has the wrong attitude. With the right infrastructure that allows a brand to try a raft of customer content, journeys and experiences, across every channel, in a risk-free way, a brand can transform the risk/reward model. There is no risk of disengaging great swathes of customers by being over familiar - instead the brand has an immediate view of the way the personalisation activity is affecting business.
"Right now, most personalisation is both tentative and tactical. But as more brands look to actively embrace sophisticated personalisation techniques, customer expectations are changing. Those brands that fail to deliver any kind of personal experience will begin to suffer," concluded Keating. "Personalisation is fast becoming a strategic imperative and it is essential to put in place the right people, processes and technologies that will enable brands to personalise without fear."