The great personalization con

I still have occasional nightmares where after I have given a presentation on how to improve customer experience by focusing on what matters most to customers, two marketers walk up to me. One looks me in the eye and says: “What about branding?” The other smirks and says: “What about personalization?”

What about personalization? It was the dream, the nirvana, the golden gate of marketing and communication. For those personalization fans I often had the unfortunate reply: “Your website is crap. If you personalize it, you’ll have personalized crap.” Most organizations can’t properly manage a basic, non-personalized website. How on earth are they going to manage a personalized environment which requires a whole other level of skills and ongoing investment?

It’s great theory to collect all this rich customer data and then micro-target people with the exact right marketing. However, to design and maintain such personalization systems takes a tremendous effort. I have seen personalization situations that required four to five times the investment in personnel than that required for running the same non-personalized website. And these people are not cheap. You need data analysts who can keep the data clean and accurate. You need designers, developers and content professionals continuously improving the environment, because personalization is notoriously difficult to optimize for.

Personalization is really, really hard work, fraught with privacy concerns, and an unparalleled ability to annoy the hell out of customers. Its very strength requires a deep, intimate knowledge of personal information, and micro-targeting can very quickly feel like stalking. Most personalization projects I’ve come across over the years have been big failures.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Gartner predicts that 80% of marketers will abandon their personalization efforts by 2025 “due to lack of ROI, the perils of customer data management or both.”

Part of the reason personalization and other ad targeting isn’t nearly as effective as the ads said it would be is because the customer is getting smarter and less trusting of brands. Studies in the UK indicate that in 2019 only 25% viewed advertising favorably, down from almost 70% in the 1960s. Advertisers are often ranked at the bottom of any league of professions. In the US about one in four people use ad-blocking software.

Collecting personal data has been an obsession of most organizations, whether commercial or governmental. Luckily, most of this data is never used because most organizations are simply incompetent when it comes to managing data. Most of those who have managed to use personal data have done it so badly they have done huge damage to societal and brand trust.

Think about personalization for a moment. It should be about being personal, which should be about truly understanding someone, having the ability to have sympathy and empathy for them, being able to know when a conversation is a good idea and when it’s best to stay quiet. Software is good at a lot of things, but being a good, understanding, decent human being isn’t one of them.

Gartner Predicts 80% of Marketers Will Abandon Personalization Efforts by 2025

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