As a retailer rather than a marketer by background, it’s been surprising to me how personalization has started to come under attack. It is being variously depicted as creepy, discriminatory, or an invasion of privacy.
This seems at odds with the way personalization actually works. It’s a merchandising approach to help a visitor to a website see the most relevant products and content. The inspiration for this approach comes from the small shop owner or personal shopper who helps you find what you want offline.
So why the flack? Mostly, it’s guilt by association. As the press looks for the latest angle on how marketers use consumer data for nefarious ends, personalization looks similar to behavioral targeting.
But while the two resemble each other, there are important differences, particularly around when and where they occur.
Targeting helps marketers identify whom they should market to and with what message. It leverages a behavioral model built from one or more data sources that allows the marketer to say, “this person has a higher propensity to be interested in my offering.” It’s a classic push model, occurring wherever the marketer feels she can effectively reach her intended target across a network of sites.
Personalization – while not strictly a pull model – is user initiated. It occurs when a consumer visits a particular website. It is a merchandising rather than marketing tool. It seeks to conform to the consumer’s preferences by leveraging a prior history (or current click stream) of that site. For example, a shopper showing a preference for men’s products would have the site default to men’s whenever possible.
The benefit of targeting is real. A more relevant ad surely is less objectionable than an irrelevant one. And for the marketer, it certainly performs better. But in the current climate of heightened concern about privacy, targeting is facing a serious backlash. People don’t like the idea of being followed.
But when entering a store, do they mind if that store seeks to show them the things that might best meet their needs? That’s not creepy. It’s called good service.
To avoid being caught in the middle, personalization practitioners may want to steer clear of blurring their offerings with targeting. Kept in the realm of merchandising – deployed when a visitor comes looking for your products – personalization is less likely to get tarred with being creepy or violating people’s privacy.
After all, that personal shopper who seems so helpful while you were in the store becomes a lot less welcome after he starts following you around town.