Excuse me for stating the obvious but your customers don't want to be treated like anonymous faces in a massive crowd.

They want and expect a little bit of that warm and fuzzy — they want to feel that you recognize them as individuals, with a distinct set of needs, interests and preferences that distinguishes them from all of your other customers.

They want personalized digital experiences, whether they're looking at an ad, using an app, browsing an e-commerce site or interacting on social media.

Me, Me, Me

Consulting firm Accenture calls this “The Internet of Me” era. It predicts that the companies who succeed on this front will “become the next generation of household names.”

Instead of blasting all visitors with the same promotions and deals, forward-thinking brands tailor their content to each person’s unique preferences, behaviors and intent.

The more personalized and relevant the content, the more connected the user feels to the brand and the more likely they are to engage. According to a study from Olapic and Movable Ink, conversion rates are 5.5 times higher when customers click a personalized recommendation.

Personalization creates a better customer experience that boosts loyalty, increasing the lifetime value of each customer, and thus the total revenue.

So OK — we agree.

Personalization leads to happy customers who spend more money over the long term. But it's not as easy as it seems.

Get Outta My Space

Make a mistake with your personalization efforts and you transition from warm, fuzzy, personalized customer experience to the creepy company that fails to respect the privacy of its customers.

You'll turn off your visitors, lose their trust and damage the reputation of your brand. You may even drive away your customers for good.

So make sure you understand the invisible line between creepy and cool, and master the art of delivering personalized user experiences without making users feel uneasy.

You Stalking to Me?

Chances are that most internet users have felt uncomfortable by advertising at some point.

Have you casually browsed for shoes only to have an ad for the product follow you from site to site?

Maybe you've wondered why you were being followed by ads for products you have no interest in buying — until it dawned on you that you were being retargeted for products your spouse had looked at.

While it is occasionally amusing, it's more often annoying.

You don't want your customers to feel stalked by aggressive display ads and retargeting, which do nothing but alienate and anger rather than engage.

And now machine learning is taking this creepy factor to a new level, especially in regard to eligibility for financial services.

Let’s say an online lending company pulls data from across the web and social media to figure out whether someone is a good loan candidate.

Learning Opportunities

That algorithm could unfavorably factor in things like gender, race and wealth to discriminate against certain candidates. This type of personalization isn’t just creepy — it’s immoral.

Personalization goes gone too far when it is intrusive and manipulative, and companies and brands should beware of using information that is highly personal or taken out of context.

Freedom First

When companies or brands cross the line into the creepy zone, they shoot themselves in the foot.

Lisa Barnard of Ithaca College conducted research that found an indirect effect based on the “creepiness factor” that comes from being targeted individually — reducing intent to purchase by 5 percent.

This reduction is caused by a phenomenon called reactance, whereby people react negatively when they feel their freedoms are being compromised or that they are being manipulated.

Instead of making a purchase, that customer will deliberately make the decision not to buy anything and likely won’t engage with that brand again.

Fortunately, brands can mitigate the cost of creepiness by demonstrating utility and justification.

If a customer feels that a personalized offer is relevant and provides a clear benefit, they won’t exhibit reactance. They will understand and appreciate that the personalization has a purpose.

The challenge here is that not all customers have the same threshold for creepiness. A recent Forrester study found customers have differing perceptions. Brands have to figure out ways to personalize content while also appealing to as broad of a customer base as possible.

3 Actionable Personalization Tips

Striking the balance between compelling personalization and creepiness involves three core principles.

  1. Use personal information to offer choices rather than limit them. Consumers don’t want brands aggressively pushing them to take a certain step or make a certain decision. Instead, use personalization to make recommendations, which seem helpful rather than controlling. For example, if a visitor has left your site, share new options with them to entice them back.
  2. Make it clear that personalization comes with advantages — that your brand is requesting and/or using personal data to impart a specific benefit. For example, if your brand operates an e-commerce site with thousands of summer shirts for sale, personal user data could help you surface the garments that a visitor is most likely to like, saving time and effort spent on searching. The user should feel pleased and even impressed by the value derived from sharing data.
  3. Unlock the full value of personalization by treating people as individuals. We know that people have different thresholds for creepiness and different attitudes towards sharing personal information online, so give them the chance to choose what they want to share. You don’t alienate anyone when you put the decision in his or her own hands.

Following these guidelines will help keep you on the right side of creepiness.

You will be able to show your customers that you understand them and their needs while also respecting their privacy.

You will be able to engage them and forge a strong relationship with relevant content while also retaining a respectful distance.

Title image "Creepy" (CC BY 2.0) by martinak15

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