Seven rules for crossing the creepy line


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Customer analytics is too often used to drive direct sales and rarely used to improve the overall customer experience. Not only is it a mistake, it drives the feelings of iciness that consumers have over targeted marketing and (Mad Men aside) marketing in general. Using their own behavior to market products feels contrived and manipulative because that’s exactly what it is. Its creepy.
Any time you use data that customers leave lying around… or even data they legitimately give you for purposes they don’t understand, you cross the creepy line. So how do you cross the creepy line without being creepy?
What if all that data was used to gain enough of a understanding about each and every consumer that their relationship with the brand became better. As my friend and colleague Mark Lawyer says

"it's about the subtle difference about the utilization and focus of the data to enhance the customer experience first with a benefit to the company by proxy, and not the other way around, then you've managed to improve your customers experience and have avoided being perceived as creepy."

The key is that if you earn the right by using that information to improve the life of the consumer you will get both immediate revenue but you will also get the massive gains that come from an engaged consumer base.

With a managed customer experience, technology both enables and forces us to rethink the narrative of communications with customers. Even when your heart is in the right place getting it wrong is easy. Consider Qantas, the Australian airline. The iPad app they developed for flight attendants provided profiles of travellers enabling a personalized one-to-one experience. Sounds great… but the unintended consequence was that the flight attendants couldn’t use the information without sounding creepy. Meanwhile British Airways have generated a great deal of comment about their programme to gather information, including pictures, on frequent flyers which is definitely the wrong side of creepy.

Customers respond to personalized and targeted messaging and the only way to do that is to use the information you have on them to manage the engagement – you have to cross the creepy line… but to do it successfully you should follow the rules.

First rule of crossing the creepy line: Be genuine. Act in good faith.

Awareness that what you are doing is crossing a line in the customers mind, but a belief that you are doing it for the right reasons is important. Consumers have a natural distrust of manipulation but will give brands they like some rope, particularly if they see a clear benefit. Be clear in all your internal strategizing, operational planning and tactical implementation what the end goal is – a better experience for the customer based on their personal preferences. If you achieve that the knock on effect will be increasing sales and a happier, more engaged customer base.

Second rule of crossing the creepy line: Track feeling, not actions (but track actions too)

Every time a customer connects with your brand you have an opportunity to learn about them. You should be tracking both behavior and where possible the emotion connected with that behavior. “Likes” should not simply be a popularity contest. You haven’t won because you have more people liking you than a competitor – you have won when you have tracked enough emotional signals from one customer to know what they care about. Tracking feeling might be as simple as giving customers the opportunity to thumbs up/down, asking them to select from a series of emoticons, or something more complex. The trick is to ask often, keep it low-impact and to track the action / feeling combo so you can use it to better direct content to them later. 

Third rule of crossing the creepy line: Create reference models for your customers through persona’s or archetypes and use them holistically

Archetype customers or personas are useful as reference points. One of the major battlegrounds in crossing the creepy line is in developing a common view of customers that all departments involved in customer engagement can agree on – including at least marketing & sales functions, R&D/products and customer service/support. Agreement that Janet is 32 years old lives in Wichita, is married and has two children might seem unnecessary but after the meetings are over all those functions need to be developing departmental strategies with the same targets in mind. 

Fourth rule of crossing the creepy line: You only get one chance…

A few years ago a team of researchers at NY University (led by Daniella Schiller) determined that in the first milliseconds of a connection we specifically engage the amygdala and the Posterior Singular Cortex. These two areas of the brain essentially create a “score” that conflates everything in those split seconds down to an impression… a first impression. When a customer makes connection for the first time (or anytime when you don’t actually know who they are) the job is to present the brand in the best possible way. What they learn here will form the nucleus of how they perceive the brand in the future. 

Fifth rule of crossing the creepy line: Agree how YOUR customers evolve and track them accordingly

You can picture it as a loop, a funnel or a wavy line. You can call it the Customer Decision Journey as McKinsey does, or the new Mental Model of Marketing as Google does in the interesting but wildly hyped ZMOT ebook… there is no wrong way except not bothering to think think about how your customers progress from lookers to buyers to advocates. Like the third rule, this is about agreeing throughout YOUR company how YOUR customers move through the cycle, not about arguing which model best applies! The next step is to do something real… keep track of where each individual customer is in that cycle (or loop, funnel, wavy line) and make sure you reference that before deciding what to say to the customer. 

Sixth rule of crossing the creepy line: Develop a series of traits to connect individuals to market segments (and develop market segments)

Segments are a great way to group customers together for the purposes of deciding a course of action. Polly Shelton has some good thinking on segmentation versus personas in her blog you should check out. In real time you have to be fluid, taking the information you can gather, inferring what you can from it and also identifying what you already know about this individual. With these three actions you can make a reasonable prediction of what to present this individual with. 

Seventh rule of crossing the creepy line: Make your interaction dynamic: learn as you go, improve as you learn.

Whatever the medium you should be ensuring that through each interaction you are using the information you know about the customer to create the response they want and need. Don’t treat each interaction as isolated – it isn’t. Using the rules above you can ensure that you are building a managed customer experience the customers will want to use, and is more than a set of simple responses in isolation from each other.

From the customers point of view it is one in a series of interactions they have with you and they have an expectation that you know that. Mike McNamara of food giant Tesco explains the complexity of today’s digital connection well 

“They expect to be able to go into a shop and compare prices with competitors; they expect to get coupons from Tesco’s Facebook page; so digital has just become part of the core rather than something on the side – if you go back two years online was just an extension for offline”. 

The trick is meeting the expectation of the customer based on both the “now” and on the wider context of their relationship with you.  

All this may sound daunting. Sticking with creepy analytics which generate sales at the expense of customer loyalty might sound simpler. But, developing a strong relationship with customers who engage and defend the brand is dependent on giving them the information they need at the right time and in the right context (language, device, presentation format). All this can be done with some forethought, cooperation between departments and customer experience management tools that are available today. 

So, those are the seven rules of crossing the creepy line. There is an eighth. It is even simpler than the others. 

When you cross the creepy line, don’t be creepy.

David Ashton
Central to capitalizing on global markets is understanding the mind of the person behind every transaction. David is an expert on the rapidly evolving ways consumers and brands intertwine. Yesterday's Facebook-Friend, is today's brand-influencer whether we want that to be the case or not. David helps business detect and capitalize on technology and societal convergence.


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