Anybody who has spent any significant time on the internet will be familiar with the following scenario…

You’ve searched for a product, let’s say running shoes. Maybe you decided to make a purchase, or perhaps you were just looking for information. But now, adverts for various running shoes are following you to every corner of the web, from news sites to social media platforms.

This can be an unsettling experience, with many people flocking to digital detoxes or attempting to reclaim their data after being ‘creeped out’ by ads chasing them around the internet. As we enter this new decade, how can brands better balance connected experiences, data collection and personalisation against the perception they’re crossing the line into invasive behaviour?

Consumer catch 22

I’ve worked in tech for over 13 years but, perhaps surprisingly, I don’t have an Alexa or Google Home as I worry about privacy issues. I’m uneasy at the idea of an Oyster card being able to track my whereabouts and I left Facebook about three years ago.

So as much as I understand how data collection works and have a healthy distrust when handing over my information, the irony is that I am prepared to embrace it if it makes my life significantly easier.

And I’m not alone in embracing this contradiction. A recent consumer survey from Boxever found that 60 percent preferred offers that are targeted to where they are and what they are doing, but 62 percent said that they do not want retailers tracking their location.

A large-scale global study from Microsoft called The Consumer Data Value Exchange, highlighted a similar paradox and Gartner research has shown that the more data points marketers use to personalise communication, the more consumers see that communication as invasive.

So, what can brands do to break out of this catch-22 scenario?

Transparency and timing are key

According to Accenture, 66 percent of consumers want companies to earn customer trust by being more transparent about how their information is being used. Other recent research shows
it’s possible to achieve a balance between personalisation and privacy – outlining that 64 percent of consumers are happy with retailers taking their purchase history as long as it led to more bespoke offers.

A Forrester report predicts that the industry will “say goodbye to third-party data and hello to zero-party data – data customers own and willingly provide to brands”.

But brands must be careful to be useful at exactly the right time. For example, the easyJet app offers tailored promotions to customers at the time of travel through mobile vouchering. They’re adding value to the customer journey, both literally and figuratively.

Customers aren’t faced with a deluge of marketing material at all times. Instead, it’s ideally timed, relevant and therefore more likely to be viewed as non-invasive.

Don’t be over-familiar and treat people as individuals

When retail giant Target identified 25 products that, when analysed together, allowed them to assign shoppers with a ‘pregnancy prediction’ score, they unsurprisingly received lots of negative publicity.

“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” a Target executive said. But they learned their lesson – not to be too familiar – and started using a different approach.

“We started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random,” the exec added.

“We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wine glasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons.”

This proves it’s more about the positioning than the actual offers themselves. People like to be treated as individuals, not lumped into a broad category such as ‘pregnant women’. A perfect example of this preference for individualisation was the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign run by Coca-Cola.

Not only was it a clever way to capture customer data – people really wanted their names on bottles of Coke – it actually increased sales for the first time in years.

The golden age of personalisation

As brands become more experienced in the relative cost and reward of personalisation, they will get smarter about how to engage their customer base in a mutually beneficial manner.

Rather than just adding to the noise, brands will see returns from creating relevant offers that cultivate non-invasive relationships. When executed well, personalisation can drive impulse purchases, lead to increased revenue, and fewer returns. But if poorly implemented, brands risk irreparable damage to their already cautious customer base and being thought of as ‘creepy’.

For brands, the golden age of personalisation will come when the experience is so frictionless and positive, that customers don’t notice its persuasive influence anymore.

Perhaps that’s the creepiest idea of all?

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