When Personalization Gets Creepy


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Since the early days of customer relationship management, companies have been steadfast in their pursuit of realizing consumer intimacy through 1-to-1 marketing, customer segmentation, and individual personalization. Today, with an ever-evolving suite of social & interactive technologies and a consumer base that is increasingly willing to share information, the depth of personalization that can be accomplished can begin to get a bit creepy.

Personalization started out innocently enough. For decades, database marketers have gathered available socio-economic and demographic information to tighten and tailor their marketing messages to the greatest extent possible. The level of intimacy and personalization, however, was often handicapped by the lack of details regarding individual consumer’s tendencies, behaviors, and preferences. Over time, thanks to a more connected and seemingly transparent society, that drought of detailed consumer information has ended.

Today, the ways and means by which marketers can tap into personal consumer information is seemingly endless. Mobile and computer web browsing activities, online search patterns, inbound and outbound interaction history, and the network of social media friends can all be utilized to make interactions more personal than ever before. With all of this consumer information, it’s possible to identify an individual consumer, where they are, what they are doing, and anticipate what they’ll do next, all without the consumer being readily aware of how much they are being watched.

Despite the emphasis on privacy rights, the average consumer isn’t doing themselves any favors by embracing social media sharing at a record pace. According to a powerful video by Socialnomics founder & author Erik Qualman titled “The Social Media Revolution”, social media adoption has forever changed the way consumers interact with businesses and each other. Highlights from the video include the fact that Facebook has topped Google for weekly traffic in the U.S., the total number of Facebook users would make it the world’s third largest if it were a country, and that 50% of the mobile internet traffic in the United Kingdom is for Facebook.

The wealth of detailed information that is shared through social media and other mediums can then be used in creative, and sometimes creepy, ways. Take, for example, the musical artist Arcade Fire who earlier this year published an interactive website titled “The Wilderness Downtown” featuring their song “We Used to Wait.” By visiting the site, a user enters some basic information, which is then incorporated into an interactive short film that uses maps and images of the user’s childhood home.

In a more real world example, German publisher Zeit Online published an article online titled “Betrayed by your own data” that unveils just how much insight can be gained through private and publicly available data. The article includes an interactive map based on 6 months of mobile phone geo-location data that is augmented with other personal information such as Twitter feeds, blog entries, and websites to piece together the exact movements, activities, and behaviors of Green Party politician Malte Spitz. This article is an excellent example of the amount and depth of information that can be compiled at the individual level.

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And finally, in perhaps the creepiest example of utilizing social media content, consider the recently published web site titled “Take This Lollipop” which incorporates a visitor’s actual Facebook images, friends, and posts to create a live action interactive video. In the video, actor Bill Oberst Jr. plays a very frightening and increasingly agitated man that appears to hack into the visitor’s Facebook page and browse through the list of friends and images. The video is extremely well produced and will cause most visitors to give pause about how much information they share online.

The future of interactive marketing promises to get even more sophisticated as new technologies begin to monitor and share even more aspects of the individual consumer’s friends, location, behaviors, preferences, and tendencies. The unabated adoption of social media sharing across all age groups will only add to the tsunami of consumer insight data that is available to today’s interactive marketer. Only time will tell whether this new era of consumer transparency will be used more for good than evil.

Robert Howard
Robert G. Howard, Partner at Kurt Salmon, has more than 20 years of experience designing and implementing innovative customer experiences across web, retail, customer care, and mobile channels. Mr. Howard is the co-author of the The Customer Experience Fiasco, and 7 Steps to Customer Experience Domination.


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