In our last post, we discussed marketing personalization 101, and offered some ideas to begin incorporating personalization into your strategy.

Now, let’s examine how mistakes in personalized marketing campaigns have backfired, resulting in lost customers or a PR nightmare on a very public scale.

The last thing you want is to piss off your customer base with personalization missteps.

Being overly familiar bordering on creepy 

Several years ago, an irate father stormed into his local Target store to demand why they sent his teenage daughter coupons for baby products. It was later revealed that his daughter was indeed expecting, and the situation was compounded by Target’s interference. If I put myself in the shoes of that parent, I’d imagine I’d be upset in a number of ways, not the least of which would be: This is how I find out? Who does Target think they are?

For Target, a milestone such as having a baby is a big opportunity. Baby related items are a gold mine, from big-ticket items like cribs to repeated purchases like diapers, clothes for a fast growing child, and age-appropriate toys. That newly-expecting customer could spend potentially hundreds to thousands.

Target assigns Guest ID numbers to their customers to track behavior, and unless customers pay cash every time and never use a coupon mailed to their home, the store has a name and identity for that shopper into their system. Target has a wealth of information on shopping habits. They know:

  • Age
  • Location based on frequency at particular stores
  • Marital status
  • Approximate salary based on purchase history
  • Which credit cards reside in consumers’s wallets
  • Web usage

Big chain stores (and even some small, independent ones) are doing all this and more, and feeding the details to their predictive behavior analysis experts.

The problem isn’t the data gathering; it’s perfectly legal.

Target got in trouble when they didn’t stop to think whether or not they should use the data they’d gathered to send a customer in a potentially sensitive situation marketing materials.

Even for a customer in a different demographic, say married in their mid-20s with stable income, a baby on the way might not always be a happy situation. By thinking with their bottom line instead of their customer-focused brain, Target let their overly familiar knowledge of shopping behavior color a customer interaction, resulting in major public embarrassment on the part of not only their store, but their customer, too. I wonder if the teenage girl still shops at Target. I’m guessing not.

Lack of familiarity

On the other hand, not being familiar enough can turn away customers. If Barbara Shopper signs up for your email list with her name shortened to Barb, getting direct or emailed promotional materials using her full first name lets her know immediately your brand isn’t bothering to know her, so why should she bother with your company?

I’ve been divorced for 7 years now, and if I get offers using my former last name, the company contacting me hasn’t bothered to update their information in a while. That’s an instant, “We don’t care about you. We just want to sell you something.” Those mailers go straight into the recycling bin.

Aim for a moving target

Your customers aren’t going to have the same life now as they did three years or even three months ago. It’s in your best interests to periodically reach out to ensure your data still matches the customer’s current details. This isn’t to say every single month, you put your email newsletter subscribers through a census-like survey, but perhaps once a year or two wouldn’t hurt.

“We’d love to keep our promotional offerings interesting and relevant to you! With this 2 minute survey we’d appreciate the opportunity to verify our messages and promotions remain helpful and enticing.”

Several weeks ago, I received an email from the doggy daycare down the street with a promotion promising a great rate on kenneling charges for holiday travelers. Unfortunately, they didn’t check their data. They didn’t see that—

  • I hadn’t kenneled my dog in two years, and
  • I have another dog and a cat in the same house who might benefit from their services (grooming and pet supplies)

They not only excluded one dog, but the dog they named and promised to love and protect during our Christmas travel passed away last spring. It was a painful reminder that this was our first holiday season without our furbaby.

My vet, however, sent us a handwritten holiday card without any reminders of the missing family member, just well wishes for us and our remaining pets (mentioned by name).

Guess which one we’ll trust with our animals this summer when we do need kenneling services?

The data shouldn’t lie, and neither should you

If your records aren’t updated, don’t fudge it. Yes, it’s daunting to keep your database as up-to-date as you can, but you know what’s a lot harder? Regaining a customer’s trust after messing up. Navigating a social media PR disaster if your flub goes viral.

Don’t tell me, “We miss you!” if I have visited your website one time, only partially completed a customer registration profile, and all you know about me is my name and email address. You don’t miss me. You never had me (or my business) in the first place.

Are you asking for too much information up front? Maybe I decided I didn’t want to give that much detail about myself to people I don’t really trust yet. If I’m apartment hunting but don’t yet know what my budget is or the best location for me, I’m not about to give a property management company my name, phone, email, minimum bedrooms and maximum allowable rent before I can even browse their listings.

Keep a finger on the pulse of public sentiment

We’ve referenced the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial before, but this also matters to companies who serve a wide margin of people. A national company using location demographics shouldn’t offer free shipping for online orders for a region in the midst of a major disaster, as Gap and Urban Outfitters both did during Hurricane Sandy, especially with insensitive discounts. Not all major life events need that personal touch.

Right now, we have more data on customer preferences and shopping habits than ever before. Segmenting your customers based on shopping history, demographics, and psychographics can help you determine which patterns customers fall into, but it’s not exact. Sure, you can be reliably sure Susan Sneezy will be in the antihistamine aisle March 1st for her bulk allergy purchase and reward her loyalty to your store with a nice voucher, but don’t make too many assumptions. Avoid this by asking one question:

If a business approached me as their customer the way we approach our shoppers, would I be impressed or creeped out by their knowledge of my life?  

If the answer is even slightly in doubt, back off, check the data, then cross check the data with other data. Because personalization works both ways. If you want your customers to think you know them well, then put in the effort to know them well, including when you’re invading their lives instead of enhancing them.


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