Is using customer data for personalization creepy?

How ‘creepy’ is too creepy? For many marketers the challenge isn’t so much around getting our hands on data - it’s whether we can use it without prospects and customers feeling we are abusing their trust and in some sense invading their privacy.

That reality is reflected in the fact that according to a recent study 47% of US Retailers are resisting using location-based analytics due to a fear of the ‘creepiness factor’. In other words, they are concerned that following their customers around, or knowing too much, is going to upset their customers more than it delights them, and as a consequence be more of a negative than a positive.

It’s no surprise that many organizations feel this way. Indeed their hesitancy should be applauded - any sign that marketers think before they spam should be treated as a little victory after all! But at the same time, all the evidence suggests that it isn’t so much using data such as location that causes a problem, but more how it is used.

Do Consumers Care About ‘Personal’ Data?

Well, if you ask a consumer, they will probably say that they do. And there’s certainly no shortage of journalists, influencers and public figures ready to talk at length about the dangers and pitfalls of over-sharing. But how does this manifest itself in actual consumer behavior? Fortunately we have an example from recently introduced EU legislation, thanks to which websites have to collect active agreement from viewers before using cookies.

The legislation is of course well-meaning, but it is interesting to note that less than 1% of all users chose to opt-out of cookies when given the option. It’s hard to square that finding with the idea that the average consumer is nervous about sharing behavioral data, or that they don’t want or enjoy personalized experiences.

At this point, a quick but important caveat: cookies don’t typically involve the collection of truly personal data such as names, email addresses and so on. But nevertheless, the premise behind them - highly personalized, relevant experience - very much involves the type of marketing activity that is sometimes regarded as ‘creepy’. And it appears that consumers don’t much care.

We can probably verify that by reflecting on other channels, including, most obviously, the real world. If we visit a restaurant for the third time and the maitre d' welcomes us by name and recommends a special based on what we enjoyed last time, do we find that ‘creepy’ or delightful? Is it really wrong to personalize our interactions with individuals based on what we’ve learned in the past?

So What Do Consumer Care About?

Earlier we spoke about marketers who ‘think before they spam’. Simply put - that’s what consumers expect. In this context, it means that it isn’t so much the collection of the data but how you use it that matters. And when consumers say they don’t like ‘creepy’ marketing they mean invasive, irrelevant sales messages that follow them around and seem designed entirely for the benefit of the retailer (to use the original example) rather than the customer.

In the digital age, marketers are lucky. In the mobile age, we are even luckier. We are able to both collect huge amounts of data, and speak to the consumer wherever they happen to be. But that power needs to be used responsibly. The truth is that consumers respond well to interactions that make use of location and behavioral data if they are helpful. The issue arises when a simple walk down a main street involves dozens of push notifications announcing ‘sale on today!’ and other generic messages.

So, ultimately, consumers are happy enough to respond to interactions that operate from an in-the-moment true understanding of behavioral and location data. Organizations considering collecting and using this data should switch the question around from “is it creepy?” to “is it helpful?” or “does it deliver a great experience?” If the answer to the last two is an honest ‘yes’, I’d argue that their approach is fine.

A Real World Swrve Example

I want to finish with a very simple example of the type of campaign that is genuinely helpful, and thus unlikely to strike anybody as ‘creepy’. A consumer foreign exchange company we worked with had a common challenge: reminding users of their service when it is only used occasionally. Fortunately, in their business location is a strong indicator of intent. Users at the airport are likely to be leaving the country (or at least they are in Europe, where this project took place).

So far so good. But rather than simply sending a push reminder when a customer broke a geo-fence at the departure airport, the campaign was only sent to those customers who had used this service before, and hadn’t done so in the recent past. In addition, behavioral data relating to typical amounts topped up onto a card were used to personalize the experience to fit each individual customer.

The result was a helpful campaign that reminded customers that they would save money by topping up their currency card, plus a significant uptick in activity from those customers - meaning a win-win all round. And nobody felt that it was ‘creepy’!