Creepy marketing: Has personalisation gone too far?

9th July 2019
Author: Chris McKay
Posted in: Content production, Technology

It’s a classic story we’ve all seen (or been the victim of). A girl in a bar is hounded by some creepy guy that just won’t get the message. She goes to order a drink, he’s there. She goes to the bathroom, he’s there too. It’s like he thinks increased exposure will wear down her defences and make him grow on her, like fungus on a tree, or herpes.

Personalisation (if poorly done) can feel a lot like a creepy guy stalking you in the club. You look at a toaster online for a few seconds and every ad on every website you visit for the next week is selling you toasters. Coincidental? Absolutely not. And you’re not the only one who thinks so. According to InMoment 2018’s CX trends report, a whopping 75% of consumers said they find personalised ads and branding at least somewhat creepy. 

What is creepy marketing?

Let’s take a look at some examples of personalisation that caused controversy because they crossed the line into creepy. These examples are all B2C because they receive the most public attention, but the principles of gathering data and using personalisation to increase customer engagement has the potential to come across just as invasive in B2B (we just don’t hear about it as much).

Target knows when you’re pregnant (even if you don’t want them to)

A pregnant woman holds her belly

Yup. That’s right. Target uses data to find out if you’re pregnant or not. How do they know? From your very first interaction with Target, you’re given an ID, and this ID will contain personal information about you and track your buying behaviour. Consumers tend to be creatures of habit, and over time as you collect their data, a very predictable pattern will emerge. So when something in your pattern changes, it’s obvious.

Target’s marketing analysts created a “pregnancy prediction” score based on changes in purchasing decisions, like buying cocoa-butter lotion when you’d never even looked at that product before. If you trigger the pregnancy prediction score, Target will start sending you special deals on baby items. This gathered a lot of attention in the media when a father angrily accused Target of encouraging his teenage daughter to get pregnant, only to find out later that she actually was pregnant. Target knew she was pregnant before her own dad. Yikes. Probably not the way she wanted to tell him.

Netflix records all your dirty little secrets

The online streaming service came under fire on social media for letting it slip that they know exactly who’s watching what and when:

A tweet from Netflix used as an example of personalisation in creepy marketing

While the jokey tweet was a hit with many people, there were plenty of others who felt unsettled by the implications of what they were saying. Of course, we all know that Netflix tracks what we watch. How else would they suggest similar shows to the ones we’ve already seen? They know that customer engagement will be better on their platform if they can personalise the experience for their customers. But for many, the tweet came across as “creepy”, and the use of their data on social media as a way to poke fun at their own customers did not go down so well. 

Your apps are listening to you

Terrifying, right? The New York Times published a report finding that the software company Alphonso (used in hundreds of games and apps) uses your smartphone’s microphone to listen out for audio signals in TV ads. This data is collected to track places you visit and things you watch, which can then be sold to advertisers. The company justified this to NYT by saying their software doesn’t listen in on private conversations, it just tracks viewing behaviour. This data is sold to companies who use it to personalise their marketing tactics, but did you ever give permission for that information to be tracked? Unfortunately, you probably did. Companies that use this kind of “listening in” software bury the clause in their privacy policy. And let’s be honest, you probably clicked accept without reading it (no judgement, we all do it). 

Is personalisation bad for customer engagement and customer experience?

Are you pretty freaked out right now? No one would blame you! Those examples would make anyone a little uncomfortable.

But the truth is, despite some companies sometimes overstepping the line, personalisation is crucial in marketing. Personalisation is the best way to increase customer engagement and customer experience, which has measurable financial advantages. The consulting group Accenture estimates that the potential upside for companies who use a smart marketing plan that personalises customer experience is worth $2.95 trillion for the industry.

A progressive stack of gold coins.

A marketing plan that integrates personalisation is important to the consumer too. In a survey of over 7000 consumers by SalesForce, more than half (52%) said they are somewhat likely to switch to a different brand if their communications aren’t personalised. And, 62% said they think it’s acceptable for companies to send personalised offers and discounts based on items they’ve already purchased.

In this data-driven marketing world, consumers expect personalised marketing. If you’re not offering a tailored experience, you’re at a disadvantage to your competitors. The difficulty is walking that line between customising a customer’s journey with your brand and chasing them around the metaphorical bar.

How to personalise content in a natural way

Be transparent

Everyone knows you’re tracking their data. It’s no secret. The trust is broken between a brand and their customers when you’re pulling data from questionable third parties or without telling them that you’ll be doing so. It only becomes creepy personalisation when the brand is using information that the customer thinks was acquired in an immoral way, like Alphonso listening to your television. It’s better to be honest and forthcoming straight off the bat. 

Make it worth it

The stats prove that people want personalisation. They know that their personal data and information can be used to give them an overall better customer experience. But there has to be something of value given in return. The problem people had with Netflix’s tweet wasn’t so much that they were gathering data (it’s obvious they do that), but they used it in a way that had no benefit to the people they mined that data from, it was just a joke for social. Don’t take stuff and give nothing back. The data you gather should be driven back into improving their experience with you.

Don’t be greedy

You don’t need to know absolutely everything about your customers. We live in the age of analytics software and cookies on every webpage. It’s almost too easy to hoard huge amounts of data on the individuals we’re tracking. Don’t get me wrong, analytics are essential for marketing, and you should be using them, but realistically you’re not going to use a fraction of the stats you record. Make informed decisions about what data you actually need to offer worthwhile personalisation and leave the rest of those skeletons firmly in the closet.

Personalisation is a great tool every marketer should be using to form their marketing plan. It allows you to create content that the people you’re sending it to will actually want to read and engage with (no easy feat). But, at the same time, you have to be careful not to go beyond the limits of what people see as acceptable personalisation. No one likes to feel like they’re being spied on (even if we all know we’re 100% being spied on), so don’t abuse it. Don’t be a creepy marketer.