As ‘Campaigns of One’ get more personal, are we nearing the point of over-personalization?

Given the flood of new data — about your movement in the real world or your psychology — some marketers are suggesting personalization should become more of a two-way street.

“Campaigns of one” are a common refrain today among digital marketers, replacing mass market campaigns with highly pinpointed orchestrations of content, offers, ads and more directed at individuals.

But that pinpoint keeps getting sharper and sharper, driven by a massive influx of new types of data and by increasingly intelligent platforms.

At some point, do we reach over-personalization, when the messaging has crossed the line into creepy? And, if so, is there a way to deal with it at scale?

There are signs everywhere that over-personalization is approaching. For instance, Cambridge Analytica — the data firm for Donald Trump’s campaign — claims it has created psychological profiles for every adult consumer in the US.

The Internet of Things is well into being a thing, with sensors and connectivity appearing in appliances, cars and billboards, or inside physical stores, creating the ability to track our movement and preferences throughout the real world (whether our identity is stated or inferred). Biometric-based marketing is learning how to discover our preferences even before we know them.

And then there are our new family members — Google HomeAmazon Echo and soon others. They listen to us all day long, ostensibly only paying attention after we say, “Ok, Google,” or whatever.

But will you be surprised to find out someday that they’ve been listening more than you thought?

One of the best examples of over-personalization in action is a story that reportedly involved Target being a little too on-target.

Even if it’s apocryphal, it could easily be true.

‘Control the outcome’

According to a news account, a father berated a Target manager in a Minneapolis store because the father’s high school-age daughter was getting coupons for baby clothes and cribs, inferred from her buying patterns at the retailer.

“Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” the father asked the manager.

But, as it turned out, the daughter actually was pregnant — but hadn’t yet told her father.

Kerry Liu, CEO and co-founder of retail intelligence platform Rubikloud, downplayed the Target story.

Something like that is “just as likely to have happened as a coincidence,” he told me. But, he added, it does highlight different consumer expectations for different kinds of products.

Some product/service categories are sensitive, he said, like birth control, hygienic products, or possibly political marketing. When brands overstep their threshold in sensitive categories, it makes people uncomfortable, he said. But in other categories — say, non-health consumer packaged goods — it’s simply annoying.

“And it depends on the brand,” Liu added, noting that consumers want to be pitched unexpected cosmetics products when they’re dealing with a brand like Sephora.

For CaliberMind CEO and co-founder Raviv Turner, the Target story is more than different kinds of expectations for different products. It’s all about “not being able to control the outcome.”

His company provides B2B customer intelligence via business customers’ psychographic profiles gleaned from emails, recorded sales conversations, texts and other data. These profiles are then used for directing emails, web page content and paid search ads.

Control, feedback

The line between relevant messages and creepy ones is governed by the user’s ability to change parameters or opt out, he told me. The point of the Target story, he said, is that the father and daughter were surprised about the coupons and couldn’t control them.

Joey Moore, product director of Episerver-owned personalization provider Peerius, said that control can be manifested through feedback if the marketer gets it wrong. Brands can measure the annoyance or even outrage, he said, by direct feedback or indirect indications like declining engagement rates.

For digital transformation provider PointSource‘s VP of Digital Greg Ng, the key lesson of the Target story is timing. It’s the classic “right message, wrong time” scenario, he said.

Although many marketing platforms seek to deliver “the right message, at the right time,” like inferring you might be receptive to a beer ad on your smartphone when you’re at an evening baseball game, it’s a matter of assumptions. Better feedback would reduce the level of assuming.

These are common themes among marketing tech vendors: if consumers utilize their control as consumers and/or if they provide feedback, then the balance of power will self-regulate. The marketer will dial it back if there’s too much adverse feedback, or if too many customers exercise negative control.

Of course, this “customer control as regulator” makes two very big assumptions. First, that there is an easy, quick and obvious way to provide feedback or exert control over marketing/ad messages. My experience is that often, there is not. Second, that it is clear to the customer where the source of the targeting data lies. That is, how come I’m receiving this? And, increasingly, that’s becoming less clear.

Spotlight or handshake?

For example, we’re now moving into an era when visual recognition engines, coupled with various forms of artificial intelligence and married to layers of other data, can infer from your social posts and photos that you live in Boston, like football, are in your 30s and are married with one child — even if you’ve never entered that information into any marketer’s profile.

When you’re targeted for ads based on that inferred profile of you, where do you provide feedback or take control?

Which is why marketers in the age of campaigns of one should focus on relationships, personalization platform Evergage’s CEO Karl Wirth told me. As with corner stores, he said, relationships can make clear the means for feedback and control. The idea is that familiarity breeds control, because you eventually learn where the proper buttons are.

Another approach is to require the placement of the control buttons, which is what European Union’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) does. Beginning in 2018, it will require that brands there receive specific consumer consent for specific uses of personal data. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission has take its own step in that direction with its recent decision about consumer control of some data gathered by network providers.

Perhaps mandating two-way control of personal data, something the Target father and daughter didn’t have, is inevitable as our personal trails of data grow.

Or perhaps the current “campaigns of one” will evolve from being an increasingly bright spotlight on individuals into something more effectively balancing privacy and personalization, like a handshake between a consumer and a brand.

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