Personalisation in marketing: Why it works and how to get it right

Ipad with apps

Personalisation has become table stakes for most of the marketing industry today. Every consumer says they want it. Every brand says they offer it. 

But why does personalisation work, and how can you ensure you get it right?

We talked to Rasmus Houlind, author of ‘Hello $Firstname: Profiting from Personalization’ for his take on marketing personalisation and how, sometimes, it can get a little too creepy. 

Why personalisation works in marketing 

Personalisation works in marketing and advertising because people are more likely to engage with messages that align with their preferences. Full stop. 

If you see something that resonates with where you are in your journey, you’re that much more likely to react. It’s human nature. 

The effects of personalisation can be attributed to evolutionary psychology and the fundamental motives framework.

According to this framework, Ville Salonen and Heikki Karjaluoto from the University of Jyväsklä in Finland say humans are looking for 6 fundamental motives: evading physical harm, avoiding disease, making friends, attaining status, acquiring a mate, and caring for family. 

At any given time, a range of these motives will be active for an individual. 

Here’s how it works. If someone is browsing for a new outfit on an e-commerce fashion website, then ‘attaining status’ and ‘acquiring a mate’ could be their active fundamental motives. 

If that same person then clicks over to a cooking website, ‘avoiding disease’ with a heart-healthy salmon dinner could be their motive. 

We’re constantly moving in and out of the framework, from ‘attaining status’ while shopping for shoes to ‘caring for family’ when we book that last-minute holiday to Rome. 

To succeed with personalisation, these fundamental motives need to be top of mind. 

Think about how your customer insights relate to the motives, and consider which ones might be active at specific moments for each individual. 

If you’re selling a premium gym membership, does the way your customer searches for it indicate that they’re looking for status or that they’re afraid of disease?

The content you choose to show that customer will vary wildly based on their motive. 

Just think of the ad for someone searching for status versus the person interested in a healthy lifestyle to prevent heart disease. 

Knowing these motives is the first step to getting personalisation right. And knowing where someone is on their journey is how you really nail it. 

When personalisation gets creepy 

Unfortunately, personalisation efforts can backfire and have the opposite effect of creating immediate and future business results. In other words, you can creep people out. 

That’s when personalisation is seen as stepping over someone’s personal boundaries. But you’d never do that. Of course not. 

But just in case… it’s good to know when consumers do find personalisation creepy?

Consumers tend to report creepiness in 3 main cases. 

  1. First, they feel creeped out if they feel they’re being stalked by mindless repetitions of the same advertisement — like some hollow echo of their browsing pattern. This is especially the case if they feel that the advertiser should be able to tell that they’re no longer in the market for the specific product.
  2. Second, they feel creeped out when the personalisation goes too far. For example, if a company starts using personal information that wasn’t given explicitly or reasonably expected to be used in that context.
  3. Lastly, they feel creeped out when the personalisation is too personal or intrusive. This occurs when companies use overly familiar language or information that should not be public knowledge, such as health information.

Even the best marketing teams have stumbled with the creepiness factor. 

In 2012, Target sent coupons for baby products to a teenage girl in Minnesota, based on her purchasing habits, which indicated she was pregnant. Her father was angry and complained to the store, but Target later apologised when he discovered that his daughter was pregnant.

In 2018, Spotify ran a campaign called “Listening Together” which displayed user data on billboards in different cities. This included the number of times a user listened to certain songs or genres and their display names. While some people found it fun and engaging, others felt it was an invasion of privacy.

In 2019, a fitness app called Strava came under fire for revealing the locations and identities of military personnel who used the app, including those in secret and sensitive locations. This raised concerns about the safety and privacy of military personnel who were unwittingly sharing their location data.

The creepy personalisation scale is a sliding one. What your neighbour finds intrusive might be welcomed by your other neighbour. 

And it’s changing. Imagine what would have been ‘too far’ back in 2008 compared to now. 

This is also where the idea of personalised and personal comes into play. 

Personalised versus personal communication 

The discussion of creepiness relates to the difference between communication being personalised or personal. 

Personalisation is when you use the fundamental motives framework above (for example) and send relevant communication to a customer — meeting them where they are in the customer journey. 

The feeling of something being personal is different. 

And it’s something that belongs entirely to the receiver. As marketers, we have to be careful not to be more personal than our receivers are comfortable with. 

Most customers don’t want an intimate relationship with your brand. You’re not Goose to their Maverick, and no matter how hard you try, you won’t be. 

That means it’s OK to stop writing emails that say how much your brand loves someone. Thank them for their purchase, sure. But don’t try to be so personal that you overstep. 

It helps if you combine personalisation with personification. This means sending (or pretending to be sending) the email from a real person. 

Use the name of your founder, your head of e-commerce, or a member of your Customer Support Team. Add their picture, too. And make sure that the email address doesn’t start with ‘no reply’ and that replies go to the person on whose behalf it was sent. Or at least an account where you can reply again as that person. 

This simple trick automatically makes the message feel more relatable and can improve results. 

Most people know that these messages aren’t sent manually by a real person, especially if the email is branded and well designed. But the point is that they connect a real person to the words and mentally hold that person accountable for the content. It builds trust and puts a face to your brand. 

Overall, personalisation has changed marketing for the better. It’s improved customer experience and increased revenue for businesses doing it right. 

Still, many companies continue to fail at implementation. The ones without a strategy come off creepy. While the lazy ones just add (firstname) to a subject line. 

But that’s where Agillic can help. Are you ready to learn more about personalisation and how your brand can profit from it? 

Get in touch with a product expert to see how Agillic can help you send truly personalised communication. And how going omnichannel can increase revenue, decrease churn and boost brand loyalty.