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How to Make Your Content Personalized but Not Creepy

Consumers are wary of personalization for its perceived privacy risk, yet they expect personalized service and act on personalized content.

What’s a brand to do?

Let’s examine how you can both address privacy concerns and make personalized content without distancing your audience.

Stages of personalization

First, let’s define what personalization is. It is a spectrum. It may only scratch the surface, greeting the person by name and appearing in their inbox at a pre-selected time. Or it goes far deeper with educational lessons tailored to the behaviors and goals of the individual.

Let’s briefly define the five stages of personalization.

Stage 1: One to all

Content is distributed as a single message to everybody. There is no variation.

Stage 2: One to many

The audience experiences a brand across multiple channels with minimal messaging variation. Elements are introduced to allow more personalized communication later, while the message exists for the masses.

Stage 3: One to some

Audience members see content variations based on placement within specific channels. At this level, the content starts to align more closely with defined segments and buyer personas.

Stage 4: One to few

Audience members experience a connection between online and offline messaging. At this stage, the brand likely communicates interactively to optimize each message.

Stage 5: One to one

Audience members receive hyper-tailored content defined by their interests and prior interactions.

Brands create the most effective touchpoints in stages 4 and 5. However, those are the same stages where some audience members grow more concerned about the level of familiarization.

Personalization paradox

A new report from SmarterHQ reveals that up to 72% of consumers will only engage with personalized marketing messages. Yet, the same survey also finds that 86% of consumers admit they are concerned about their data privacy.

Personalization paradox: 72% only engage w/ personalized mktg; 86% concerned about data privacy. @llubin Share on X

It’s a paradox, as these people-on-the-street interviews illustrate in this short video promoting the research report:

Among the takeaways from these interviews:

  • People are wary about brands asking for personal information such as phone numbers that they see as unnecessary to the interaction.
  • People are uncomfortable when brands target them using information they did not consciously disclose.
  • People now realize brands may have been using personal data long before consumers realized it.
  • Parents are especially troubled when brands use their personal information to target their children.

With these concerns in mind, it’s clear why the demand for less personalized marketing is gaining steam. However, the answers also pinpoint a common attitude people have about personalization – personalization becomes a problem when there is a lack of transparency and disregard for boundaries.

Personalization is a problem when there is a lack of transparency & disregard for boundaries, says @llubin. Share on X

Get personal in an acceptable way

The biggest complaint several people in the video mentioned is that brands connected with them in ways that felt intrusive. In other words, they weren’t happy when brands personalized content using information they couldn’t remember giving.

It felt creepy, frustrating to them.

But what if brands disclosed to people how their personal data would be used from the start? Audience members likely will feel less bothered by highly targeted messages.

And making those disclosures should prompt brands to think about why they’re asking the audience for personal data. Think about whether you really will need or use the personal information (i.e., phone number). You also should know how you’re going to use the personal data to deliver value – not gimmicks – to your audience.

Does your brand really need all the personal information it collects, asks @llubin. Share on X

This is non-negotiable for brands looking to maintain trust and credibility among their audiences. It’s also a must for brands still on the fence of transparency because laws (EU’s GDPR and more) are requiring it.

Create transparency

Define data

Your audience’s personal data is more than an email address and phone number. The GDPR defines data as a person’s “physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural and social identity.”

What is data for your brand? What information do you collect for marketing? Seek only the essential information. Asking for or using unnecessary details can overstep personal boundaries and weaken the relationship between your brand and your audience.

Disclose and secure consent

Many brands still collect or share personal data without full disclosure. For example, late last year it was revealed that Facebook allowed over 150 companies to use its audience’s personal data. Microsoft’s Bing search engine could access the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, while Spotify could read private messages on the platform.

Your brand should verify that all data-collection methods and management systems are in accordance with applicable privacy laws.

Explain up front to your audience members how their data could be used in the form of a disclaimer. Detail the data you are collecting and how it could appear in the content serviced to them. Then ask for their consent.

Explain up front how your audience’s data could be used, says @llubin. Share on X

TIP: Don’t make consent an all-or-nothing deal. Offer your audience options on the type of content they can opt in to receive.

Do personalized content the right way

Context is king in the world of personalized marketing. The key to creating successful personalized content is to ensure that it delivers value to the audience. And that can be accomplished without inducing uneasiness if you’re deliberate and transparent about how you use your audience’s personal data.


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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute