When personal crosses the line into pushy

Marketers might think that social media is the holy grail of emotional connection with a consumer, but they need to make sure their websites and emails are personalised, not intrusive, for maximum engagement.


Brands want consumers to like them and buy more of them and marketers spend most of their time striving for this to happen. Social media is one way of building the conversation, but marketers must not forget that how people interact with them through their websites is important too.

Almost three-quarters of people prefer an online experience that can be personalised to their own requirements according to research shown exclusively to Marketing Week.

The study, by TNS Research International, which spoke to 50,000 people in more than 40 countries, also shows that nearly 70% of people say the ethics of a website or brand strongly affects whether they would visit a site again.

This is because people don’t want to feel that websites are intrusive, according to Nicole Duckworth, a director at TNS. “If there is a feeling that a website is not creating a genuine relationship with someone, and it is more about what is in it for the brand, then the trust people have is challenged,” she says.

While people want websites to be tailored so they are relevant to people, a balance must be struck between this and the data a brand must collect, according to Duckworth. “Part of this is because of ethics and the view that data should be protected, a customer’s view should be respected and then they will interact with you as a brand.”

This is something which is echoed by Celia Pronto, managing director of consumer marketing at new website Bookatable. She says: “The balance is between how much a consumer wants personalisation versus how much information they provide about themselves,” (see The Frontline, below).


Duckworth adds that this is part of a more general trend for consumers to be protective about information gathered on them. “It reflects a general pattern that people do not want their data to be sold, passed on or used for other purposes unless they have given express permission.”

While consumers want websites to be tailored to their needs, 73% say they also admire imaginative and novel platforms. This is something which VisitBritain considered when designing its new website last year, taking contributions from amateur photographers via Flickr and using the pictures as a rotating carousel to provide inspiration to website visitors. This is where social media can come into its own too. “By using new and engaging social media sites, brands can target people specifically, such as on Foursquare,” says Duckworth.

But while websites can be seen quite positively, 27% of people say they get too many emails from brands and find them intrusive, the research reveals. Duckworth says this could be because ’functional’ emails can seem like an interruption when a brand is trying to be efficient. She says email should also be personalised as much as possible.

“Relevance is important on a functional level, but email should also be about making life a bit easier and more fun. If a brand has new ads that are quite fun and viral then people appreciate being involved with their sharing or being rewarded for their loyalty.”

And people are prepared to be loyal, the research shows. Just over a third (35%) say they join brand communities because they enjoy supporting brands online, and 31% join because they want more information on brands. For Tom Rainsford, head of brand and proposition at Giffgaff, this is a figure that will only increase.

“Brands used to just provide you with stuff, but all that has changed with how we communicate online,” he says. Duckworth is similarly pleasantly surprised by the statistics. “People are wanting to draw from brands – it is not simply a case of what they can get promotions-wise – it is more a long-term relationship.”

Almost three-quarters of people prefer an online experience that can be personalised to their own requirements according to research shown exclusively to Marketing Week

The research also reveals that about one in five people will join a brand community – Facebook or similar – to follow their friends who are already in the group. But this does not have to happen within Facebook. “Word of mouth drives brand adoration here, and you would hope that converts to purchase. It can be done outside Facebook but there is a need to create that momentum behind it,” Duckworth says.

The fact that brands asked TNS to do this research shows they are not yet having the most fruitful relationships with their consumers. “Some of the relationships are still in their infancy. When we talk to brand owners we ask them what they can do for consumers that they will want to know or hear about,” she says.

Again, though, brands should not seek to interrupt people too much, with 17% of people finding social media intrusive. “You will always have some people who don’t wish to be advertised at so that figure is not particularly surprising,” says Duckworth.

While befriending brands online – or creating a “frandship” as TNS terms it – is something that might be thought of as a younger person’s thing, Duckworth says that it is more to do with attitude. “We spoke to a broad spectrum of ages. You can split the responses by age but what is more interesting is looking at people’s relationship to the online environment. It is more useful to look at attitudes than demographics.”

So online relationships are complex and must not just be thought of as cold, hard clicks and page views, says Duckworth. “People are made up of needs and motivations – we set out to make sure this went beyond online behaviour and clicks.”

The frontline: we ask marketers on the frontline whether our ’trends’ research matches their experience on the ground


Justin Reid, head of digital and social media, VisitBritain

It’s interesting that 74% say they prefer personalised websites. Our website has an algorithm and can serve up pages to someone that people who’d undertaken the same user journey had viewed, which works nicely for us.

We look at what the most popular parts of the site are and how people click through – and we make sure those feature on the homepage and on the first level of navigation. We try to construct the site so people do not have to dig down and search too much.

Personalisation works much better on transactional websites – so sites such as Amazon can say that someone who bought or viewed one item also viewed this. With VisitBritain it’s primarily around inspiration and branding rather than transactions. If other people have taken this user journey, by the law of averages you will like this as well. For us the personalisation starts with a really well designed user journey. We try to make it so that people do not have to dig down and search too much.

We are also bringing in a function where people can see which of their friends have liked particular pages on Facebook, which appears on the right hand corner of our website.

In terms of emails, I’m surprised it’s not more than 27% who find them intrusive. We are finding that our unsubscribe rates are on the rise and our open rates are definitely on the decline. That is down to people’s email inboxes not being a happy place, they are a work place.

We try to make sure there is an enticing deal with a partner like easyJet or P&O so that people open our emails.

What I wouldn’t seek to do is build our own brand community – we are using the big boys, Facebook, Twitter, and especially Flickr. We use those communities to do a bit of daily inspiration and then eventually drive people to the website. Almost all our pictures come through Flickr which provides fresher imagery seen through the eyes of the consumer. Our dwell times have gone up as a result.


Celia Pronto, managing director, consumer marketing, Bookatable.com

Bookatable makes it easy for diners to find the restaurant they are looking for, by cuisine type or location, and book it. The interesting thing for me in the research is the statement about personalisation. Technology means that websites can offer a far more personalised experience – but the balance is between how much a consumer wants personalisation versus how much information they provide about themselves. People want a better experience but on the other hand question how much they can trust brands.

There is concern around the security of data. At a basic level it’s whether people trust a brand and therefore whether they share this information and beyond that there is the delivery of that promise.

We do personalisation – at a basic level we remember people’s details so it’s easier to book next time. We then send tailored communications based on the city or cuisine type they have booked. We look at how we can dovetail the site experience into our communications.

The use of mobile will make personalisation easier and more relevant. We are looking at when it makes the most sense for people to hear from us, on what devices and how we target them. We need to make sure we have a single view of any customer so we don’t email them at the same time as texting, for example. There will be a huge blurring of the lines between online and mobile.

At the moment Bookatable is growing and constantly evolving with new functionality. When we think about the website we think about what is the best user experience. We know that users want to benchmark restaurants and we want to provide that to them.

I thought the 27% who say emails are intrusive is quite a low figure. The key thing is to think about frequency of emailing – whether you send something weekly or once a month. There is an awful lot of assumption on the part of brands that someone who has bought from you once wants to hear from you all the time.


Tom Rainsford, head of brand and proposition, Giffgaff

It is really interesting that 35% are enjoying supporting brands because traditionally you’d think that no one would want to support a brand. Why would they? But in one, two or five years’ time I would expect that percentage to grow. The more you can embrace that the better and the more fruitful your relationship.

I thought the stat that 27% of people find email intrusive was interesting. I think traditionally it has always been a one-way communication but with social media it is now two-way.

We still use email but the important element is that it is relevant to our members. We address people by name and we give specific information about their account and we get good feedback for doing that.

Another stat that jumped out was that 74% prefer personalised websites – it’s that element of Facebook tailoring its site to what people want. We try to give them a personal account that they can update.

Giffgaff is run by consumers. We have seen members set up their own microsites about Giffgaff – we give people a unique URL they can use to send out to get SIM cards and they can get more members. They are branding the site and building stuff on our behalf. One person created a Giffgaff iPhone app.

Some of this might not quite be on brand, but that doesn’t matter as we share the brand.

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