Personal service used to mean that the greengrocer knew your name and what fruit and vegetables you liked to buy at their shop. When businesses first became digital, it meant sending emails to people, addressing them by name.
Now that every consumer owns a variety of digital devices, the definition of personalisation has become more complicated – and it is more difficult to achieve. It means reaching the right people, in the right place, at the right time, according to participants at a roundtable debate hosted by Marketing Week and sponsored by Acquia and MRM Meteorite.
So why is personalisation such a buzzword at the moment?
The new customer service
“In an analogue world, delivering personalisation was just about making sure that your staff were interested in customers – no technology, no data challenge. We didn’t talk about personalisation, we talked about customer service,” said Mark Lindsay, strategic client development director at Experian.
“With so many different devices and channels – it’s challenging to understand who it is on the other side of that device – [personalised service] has been raised up the agenda because we know it’s something we need to get back to. The consumer demand is definitely there and it’s got a hype associated with it because it’s difficult to do.”
For Ian Truscott, growth director at agency MRM Meteorite, the speed at which people expect brands to respond – and the ease with which they can switch to a competitor – has also driven companies to work out how they can customise automated communication.
He explained: “You have less than a New York minute to engage the consumer right there and then and personalisation is a strong way of bringing that consumer in.”
Get it right, and it can provide customers with a seamless experience, and one that they will come back to. “[Personalisation]is going into a coffee shop where I don’t even have to ask for what I want, I just swipe my card and it’s there. They know me and what I want every morning,” said PlayStation.com digital marketing manager Charlotte Stevens
The ‘consistency of intimacy’
People have similar expectations of brands, whether they are dealing with them in the ‘offline’ world of the greengrocer or in the online world of websites, emails, apps and text messages – or a blend of the two – the panel conceded. And while digital technology has made many people’s lives easier, it has also made them more demanding.
Consumers want – to a certain extent – the information that a brand has about them to be used to provide a personal interaction. “The consumer understands the data we’re collecting on them, and they are starting to expect a relationship with you that’s based on that data,” said Truscott.
“If you don’t use that data, if you don’t continue with a consistency of intimacy and you use their name on an email but when they come onto your website you don’t know who they are or their buying behaviour, that jars with people.”
However, getting people to give up their information in return for more targeted communications is not always easy. According Toby Shaw, director of marketing and PR at Celebrity Cruises, brands should do more to explain the benefits of providing such data. “There’s an education we need to do because when we do send [a personalised email] out, it’s better marketing, it’s more relevant to you, it’s going to get you what you want quicker.”
Trust is also key to this intimacy, especially in the banking world, said Tajinder Sumal, head of digital solutions at Williams & Glyn, part of RBS Group.
“Getting trust that we will keep your data secure is where we can add personalisation. We are not great at it but we are getting better. [Customers want to know:] is my data secure and used in the right way, not just to push a product at me?”
To gain that trust, some brands have been explicit in their need to collect and use data. “If you’re a brand and you have a trust relationship with consumers, happy days, but if you don’t have that, how do you build it up?” asked Experian’s Lindsay.
He cited Channel 4’s viewer promise, where comedian Alan Carr explained how giving the broadcaster information such as a name and address would help make more programmes – as the data is used to sell personalised advertising. Crucially, it explained that viewers could control the information held about them.
Although being able to send someone a highly personalised and relevant ad or message was seen as the ‘holy grail’ of marketing, most agreed that businesses are largely at the start of being able to do so.
Shaw was open about Celebrity Cruises’ position. “We have an analogy of crawling, walking, running and sprinting when it comes to personalisation, and we’re probably between crawling and walking at the moment.”
The brand knows which cruises people have taken with it, how far they have travelled, and whether they spend money in the spa, casino or shops when on board, for example.
“[We are working to put] that into one communication to make this trip exactly what you want, but also adding a little bit of magic about what you had not thought about, where you have spent time on our website,” Shaw explained. He is working with his team to double email open and click-through rates.
Shaw is also trying to understand the effect of wider issues on customers, such as Brexit or the performance of the stock market, as well as using data to gain insight into when people want to book holidays outside the typical January and February peaks.
“Intimacy is better than identity: just knowing something [about someone] is not enough. It’s knowing what they might want that is absolutely key. Intimacy is better than loyalty because you can be loyal and go back to [a brand] but you don’t really know me,” he said.
For David Aponovich, senior director of digital experience at Acquia, personalisation in marketing is an ambition for many – and they are not yet getting it right.
“My point of view on personalisation is that a lot of it is ugly. Generally, data says that 90% of companies do or want to do personalisation yet if you look at it, less than 20% are doing it, so there’s a gap,” he said.
Get it wrong, and attempts at personalising communication can turn people off a brand, creating a competitive disadvantage, said Aponovich.
The creepy factor
This potential for ugliness – in other words sending people irrelevant messages – was a major concern for the marketers around the table. There is also a balance between using the information a brand has on customers, based on their behaviour on a website, and the ‘creepy’ factor, where people wonder about how much a brand knows about them and what it will do with that data.
“On one side is privacy – it’s creepy and they hate that – and on the other side it is ‘you know my name, and what I just bought, so use the things that are relevant to this experience’,” said Truscott.
But poorly targeted marketing risks switching people off a brand – or marketing in general – warned some participants. Many cited their own experiences of personalised communications that they felt crossed a line, such as social media sites suggesting people they may know but may not have spoken to for some time.
Retargeting – where items someone has browsed via one website appear in advertising on another – was also cited as something brands must use carefully. “Remarketing is the very essence of the ugly in personalisation because it is lazy and cheap,” said Truscott.
Not only are marketers working out how best to use retargeting, they are also attempting to link someone’s online and offline behaviour and having to deal with how someone wants to be communicated with.
Abigail Dogruoz, a marketing manager in BP’s trading division, said that in a business-to business context, relationships are crucial. For a customer event of around 200 people, the company might use a customer relationship management system to identify guests and email invitations. However, in some cultures, emails are not always read by senior staff.
“For an event in Japan, colleagues specifically requested that we don’t send an email invite to customers because they do not check emails at that level, or don’t respond,” she explained.
“It could be seen as offensive if there wasn’t a [prior notice of the invitation]. We will be sending a paper invite, but it will all be timed because they need to be advised that they will be receiving an invite. So is there a lost opportunity in the digital personalisation space?”
Creating different versions of a piece of marketing and making them work seamlessly across media and devices is a headache. Shaw at Celebrity Cruises cites an example of a travel brand that used 7,000 different versions of a piece of creative, a “hell of a lot of work” that resulted in increased click-through and conversion rates.
“It just felt like the right ad at the right time [for the consumer], and you have now got to chuck ‘right device’ in there too. If that works, it can be fantastic.”
With regard to devices, a further difficulty arises: people are likely to research on a tablet or smartphone, but will buy their cruise via a desktop computer, said Shaw.
“It is very difficult to take that journey with you [when you switch to a different device], so we are losing all this information we have gathered on the tablet when they go to a desktop. People say ‘you have remembered me on this [device] but not this’. There is a lack of genuine trust in putting card details into a tablet.”
The future of personalised marketing
The panel agreed that although there are definite obstacles to getting personalisation right, the opportunities are huge.
Using data powerfully and for good reasons is something marketers should aim for, said Experian’s Linsday. He explained: “We will get the concept of the value exchange becoming more explicit [with consumers dictating the terms].
“You will have more control over how you can trade that [personal data] for value in exchange. You will be able to make decisions about how your data is used. But it will only work if people understand that is a power for good.”
However, giving consumers more control over how their information is used might create a divide between rich and poor, said Shaw at Celebrity Cruises.
“People who can afford not to get advertised to will not get ads – there will be a splitting of society because [some people] have to take ads because they cannot afford not to. And those who want a premium experience can skip it and get around it,” he explained.
“I am sure there will be a way for people to skip any kind of ads by paying for the ultimate privacy package through Google.”
Simplicity will become even more important, as well as being able to seamlessly use information about people, said MRM’s Truscott. “There is a massive opportunity right now. The simple things – like your order being ready at Starbucks – are quite difficult to do digitally. These are hard problems to solve that must appear very simple to the consumer and we have an opportunity to do that.”
Sumal at Williams & Glyn agreed that simplicity will be key, but warned of a data precipice.
“When I’m outside of work I try and keep away from ads: I don’t want these companies to know about me. Have I got a Waitrose card? No and I don’t want one either. I don’t want you to know all this stuff, it’s encroaching on the space around me.
“We will reach a precipice very soon. The companies that succeed in future will be the ones that do it very subtly, such as [using] email. You will not even know it’s machine learning in the background [because] it’s making our life very simple. The companies that put it in your face, [will be] the ones that people will reject.”
For PlayStation.com’s Stevens, the technology seen in the film Minority Report might not be that far away.
“Who knows, one day you will be wearing a magic band and you’ll look up at the Piccadilly Circus signage and it shows you the Nike trainers you have [just] bought.”
Making it personal: marketers’ favourite customised campaigns
Abigail Dogruoz marketing manager, BP – British Airways, for recognising me
“Part of the [personalisation] challenge is to take the digital learning and apply it in person,” says Dogruoz. She adds that British Airways’ Club World cabin is a good example as “they know what newspaper you read or what you like to drink. That shouldn’t be forgotten among all the digital advancements.”
David Aponovich senior director of digital experience, Acquia – Princess Cruises, for its itinerary planner
Princess@Sea lets holidaymakers create an itinerary, see how much they have spent and message other passengers at sea. Aponovic says: “[This lets it] be ‘my’ cruise, not the cruise you want me to take, [providing information] via an iPhone or computer.
It gives the tools to the people rather than forcing a ‘personalised’ experience on them.”
Tajinder Sumal head of digital solutions, Williams & Glyn – Monzo bank, for its personalised bank statements
Sumal says: “It will give you a picture of the Pret you bought a sandwich from and [say]: this is what you bought. It has also applied ‘personetics’ to show if someone has two of the same payments every month.”
Mark Lindsay strategic client development director, Experian – TripAdvisor, for knowing about me
Lindsay says: “It [has] a good level of engagement based on what you’ve done before, what you’re interested in and where you are at a point in time, across multiple channels.”
Toby Shaw, director of marketing, PR for Celebrity Cruises – Under Armour, for its fitness tracker
Shaw favours sports clothing brand Under Armour’s Record app for personalised fitness advice – even though he has yet to buy anything from the company. He says: “It recognises me because of my gym membership and sent me an app that said ‘we’ll really help you get fit’. They are very encouraging, and send me updates on what I should be doing.”