Tim Beard: Real-time personalisation – the fine line between ‘personal’ and ‘creepy’

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Tim Beard: Real-time personalisation – the fine line between ‘personal’ and ‘creepy’

By Tim Beard, managing director for APAC at Silverbullet


Whether it’s serving the most relevant ad, optimising the online browsing experience, real-time open emails, or customer service, all organisations should be tailoring the next experience for their customers. But take one step too far and you risk tarnishing your brand and making your interactions look ‘creepy.’ And while creepy is hard to define – think the lurking stalker hiding around every internet corner – consumers certainly know it when they feel it.

So how can organisations get the balancing act right to be tactful, and not tacky, in the way we engage with customers?

An expensive way to annoy customers and a lost opportunity to delight?

Real-time personalisation is achieved through the combination of machine learning and automation, to provide customers with a personalised interaction for them at the right time based on specific behaviours. These kinds of interactions can be hard to get right. But if done well using the right tools, the rewards are loyal and profitable customers who recommend you to other people.

The main issue in getting it right seems to be a lack of the most key component of all marketing efforts: empathy. When empathy is missing, real time personalisation can easily look ‘creepy’, and a marketing message or promotion can quickly switch from giving a customer that ‘aha moment’, to being perceived like a ‘used car sales rep.’

According to InMoment’s CX trends report, 75% of consumers say they find personalised ads and branding at least somewhat creepy, and 22% report they will leave that brand for being creepy.

So while customers may want personalised offers, and are often happy to supply their data in exchange for better real-time experiences, once you cross the line towards creepy territory, your customer will feel ‘used and abused’ – and you’ve likely lost them.

Don’t set and forget the tech – it’s implementation that helps forge human connection

A common mistake marketers make is concentrating on the ‘shiny new tech’, and forgetting the tech is there to facilitate a real, human connection.

Digital marketers often ‘over focus’ on the martech stack’s capabilities and ‘under focus’ on the human side of the equation – whilst a robust implementation is important, it’s the utilisation that counts. The fact is, Gartner’s 2019 Multichannel Marketing Survey demonstrates less than half of respondents (44%) use predictive modeling or rigorous testing to determine if a real-time response is even warranted when designing event-triggered marketing.

Just because data collection and analytics has progressed to the point that real-time targeting is possible, doesn’t mean it should be treated as a ‘set and forget’ capability for marketers. Like any tool, it’s easy to use badly and it takes a skilled craftsperson to use it well.

Most people don’t want to be stalked around the internet by a product they just looked at and disregarded. Likewise, they don’t want to be served up ads based on something they said to a smart speaker an hour ago. They also don’t want to be sent an abandoned cart reminder seconds after they abandoned that cart. Make sure your messages are relevant and valuable.

Key considerations to prevent the creep factor

Consumers want good experiences, but usually want them tailored to a depth of customisation which can’t easily be achieved. And marketers want to provide them, but struggle to balance customer experiences with commerciality. So where is the line? Un-creepifying your real time efforts in real time involves three considerations: Context, timing, and product/offering.

Consider these scenarios: If a potential customer is on your website looking at a product and you serve them up an offer for that product while they are on there, that will be appreciated. Likewise, when your customer reaches out to your support centre, knowing that they’ve just been browsing the troubleshooting section of the website will help the agent get to the heart of the problem quicker and deliver superior customer service.

That product following them around on various websites for the next few weeks does not, however, make your brand look empathetic or contextually considerate, particularly if it’s a highly personal item, or they weren’t that interested in the first place. It is intrusive – and smacks of being stalked.

6 tips for real-time personalisation without becoming the cars sales rep of the internet

1. Empathy. This is where a lot of marketers fail, because it is not about what can be done with the tech. The tech is the facilitator of real human connection, it does not stand alone. Empathise with your audience and do whatever you can to be of value.

2. Because you’re worth it. Likewise, if you are going to target a consumer with a real time offering, make it worth it, make it a good offer that adds value. In an ideal world, a price-point offer would be made after the value of the product is effectively communicated, so if a price reduction is needed to get a customer over the line, that price reduction is appreciated.

3. Context. Context is hugely important to creating effective advertising. Where is your potential customer right this second? What need are they trying to solve? How can your personalisation marketing take advantage of that insight? Marketers need a reliable contextual understanding of their consumers, as well as the devices and sites on which ads appear, rather than an ID which has been informed by spurious sources. Evaluate the trustworthiness of your targeting data, and if in doubt – don’t.

4. Consent data is a good start. The best personalisation comes from real information willingly provided by real customers in a post-sales environment. Ask your customers what they want and how they want to be communicated with, and how frequently they want to hear from you. This takes out the guesswork and can inform your marketing strategy moving forward at far less expense.

5. Opportunity versus cost. Time to have a look at whether your real time personalisation is actually getting you customers, or if it is alienating them. Real time personalisation for the sake of it costs a fortune, and in many cases may not be necessary. Do some testing and find out what actually works and where you might be wasting spend.

6. Tech. Not all tech is created equal. Ensure the right tools are implemented well and the right marketer is using it for thoughtful and considered targeting. Invest in a qualified consultant who can help you get the most out of your tech stack, so you don’t fall into the ‘set and forget’ trap.


Tim Beard is the managing director for APAC at Silverbullet. With over 25 years’ experience helping organisations implement and manage digital technologies, Beard assists marketers to understand and unlock the value of their martech and adtech mix, to effectively leverage data and glean new and transformational insights for better ROI.