Finding the balance with personalization

Hand with rainbow light shining on it

As customer experience and expectations evolve alongside the growing digitalization, digital personalization has transformed from a nice-to-have feature into an essential element of positive digital experiences.

From targeted ads to strategies like account-based marketing, personalization pervades every step of our digital journeys. However, as demand for personalized experiences grows, so does users’ awareness of how their privacy is treated online, which is being accompanied by a surge in important updates to privacy regulations worldwide.

In this peculiar landscape, it thus becomes essential to provide heartfelt personalized experiences, while at the same time taking care to respect your customers’ privacy and avoid strategies that come off as creepy. This article will take a look at how to achieve this balance by going through some essential dos and don'ts of personalization.  


Doing it right

First we’ll look at some tips and examples of personalization done right. Remember that, since personalization is all about maintaining balance, some of these approaches can actually have detrimental effects if you overdo them.


Use first names and personal pronouns

This is the number one rule of personalization which predates data-driven and/or highly automated digital approaches. Using your customer’s first name is the quickest way to establish a personal connection. 

Where it makes sense, you should also opt for the use of personal pronouns over words like “customers” (e.g. instead of “all our customers get free delivery” say “you’ll get free delivery”).

Depending on your business/industry, you may want to be more formal and use the person’s last name together with a title such as Mr/Ms/Mrs. However, this can pose challenges when you’re not aware of their status or preferred gender, or an appropriate title doesn’t exist for the gender that they identify with.

One thing to note is that, with the rise of highly personalized experiences, this has now become an essential part of personalization that all customers expect. You’ll need to do some extra work to differentiate your brand from all the others and truly resonate with the customer.

Another important thing to keep in mind: don’t use a customer’s / prospect’s name if it’s not clear or logical how you know it. On a similar note, don’t overuse their name, as this may come off as very disingenuous, especially when combined with some other “creepier” personalization tactics which we’ll discuss in the other part of this article.


Provide personalized content based on user preferences

These types of digital experiences are extremely popular and are a great example of the value of personalization. This is any type of platform that offers content recommendations based on previously accessed content and/or preferences set on first interaction. 

The best known examples are streaming services, such as YouTube, Netflix and Spotify, and e-commerce websites such as Amazon. Platforms such as Netflix and music streaming services go even further, by allowing users to create their own playlists rather than just rely on recommendations made by algorithms which are purely data-based.

Social media platforms also offer a lot of personalization (i.e. personalized feeds), but in the past years, digital users have become more aware of how these platforms (mis)treat their data and are increasingly seen as creepy. We provide more detailed insights on these topics in our podcast episode with Josh Forte of Comporium.

One of the best things about this type of personalization is that it’s almost entirely based on first-party data, and data which is most often willingly shared by the user since it is completely transparent how it will be used and how they’ll benefit from it.


Offer self-personalization features/promotions

A neat feature of user-centered design is the rise of services that allow users/customers to personalize their own experiences how they see fit. This can include customizing accessibility features of a website via the Civic accessibility toolbar, which can be especially useful in case of temporary disabilities where you might want to adjust your settings.

On the other, far end of the spectrum, we’re seeing the ability to personalize the actual product you buy, through a kind of combination of physical and digital personalization. 

Great examples of this are personalized children’s books designed by the parents themselves via a website, similarly designed gifts, e.g. for staff or business partners, or even custom-built products such as a computer or a musical instrument with custom features or components which the customer can select and combine by choice.


Be mindful of the customer’s context

Perhaps the most important piece of advice when it comes to personalization is to always be mindful of the context. With such an abundance of data collected on each individual, you can’t make the excuse of not knowing basic information about them, especially if it’s obvious that you have really specific data about them.

Use the data you obtain on your customers for good. For example, if you know that a customer has recently lost a parent, don’t advertise Mother’s/Father’s Day related products to them, or Valentine’s Day products to a customer who has just gone through a breakup.

Oh, and, don’t show them location-based offers and promotions for locations that they aren’t in or close to. Especially during a lockdown!


… without being creepy or annoying

In this section we’ll focus on what to avoid when personalizing digital experiences and round everything off with an excellent example which really underlines how things are never black and white in this field, and how valuable personalization can be when it’s properly balanced.


Be tactful with targeting

Targeting users with ads based on products they’ve purchased is all well and good, but tread lightly and remember to maintain balance. The customer likely doesn’t want to see an ad for the exact same product that they’ve just purchased; try targeting them with related or complementary products instead.

This similarly holds true for products that are once-in-a-lifetime or -decade purchases - why would you be inclined to buy a boat after you’ve just bought a boat? (well, ok, maybe if you run a FTSE 100 company, but in that case, chances are you’re not often casually browsing the web to pass the time)

Family Guy mystery box joke

Avoid spamming

Spamming customers with ads and promotions can have the adverse effect of turning them away rather than incentivizing a purchase. This includes taking advantage of the customer’s good favor with something like excessive notification prompts - if they’re already viewing your site and checking out your offering, why risk turning them off by overdoing it?


Avoid dark patterns

Granted, this falls more into general design tips, but it’s still relevant to personalization as these types of UX design patterns frequently make use of common user data such as first name and location. 

Dark patterns break the illusion of data usage being customer-centric and make obvious the fact that its use is tailored to the best interests of the brand, which may make customers reluctant to purchase from or even ​​altogether interact with that brand.


Don’t over collect data

Of course it’s great to have as much data as possible, but you shouldn’t collect data you won’t ever need. In the past few years, consumers have become more aware of how their data is obtained and handled, and realizing that you over collect data may lead them to mistrust your brand, similar to the effect of dark patterns. 

This includes making it too obvious that what you’re doing is disingenuous (much like overusing first names), which results in very blatant and often exaggerated personalization - a common example would be messaging and targeting someone for years after they briefly interacted with your brand once.


Don’t intrude

If your prospect doesn’t reply, don’t take that as incentive to flood them with even more messages, especially if they’re of the intrusive type, e.g. “you haven’t replied in X” or “you better hurry, this super cool offer expires in Y”.

That said, there have been cases where a brand’s customer-centricity combined with persistence actually saved lives. For example, Domino’s has recently gained the reputation of not complying with accessibility standards, but that makes us forget about more positive stories related to the brand, such as the time when their staff saved a regular customer’s life when they were concerned after he hadn’t ordered from them in a while.

This is a perfect example of the importance of getting the balance right with personalization. If they had decided to mind their own business in the fear of not coming off as creepy, their customer wouldn’t have made it. 



Ant balancing on a bough

As we’ve just demonstrated, personalization is an extremely nuanced endeavor and there’s often a thin line between user-friendliness and creepiness. Whether you’re tackling personalization in a B2C or a B2B context, you’ll need to make sure you maintain that balance. 

Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of the best practices and customer preferences when it comes to personalization in an always-on but privacy-first digital environment. 

Personalization has become such a key element of digital strategy that you need to make sure you’re doing it right. But, at the end of the day, we’re all digital users ourselves , so if you ever get stuck, just ask yourself what kind of personalized experiences you enjoy the most, and let that serve as your guide.