Personalization Can Be a Double-Edged Sword

Feb 07, 2017

The quest for greater personalization in email and digital marketing continues to be a hot topic (and goal) for enterprise businesses. In 2016, more than half (54%) of senior marketing executives surveyed in “Breaking Down the Barriers for Successful Enterprise Email Marketing” said that improving email personalization was their number one priority for 2017.

But just because an email, or any digital marketing content, contains personalized information doesn’t mean it will be successful. According to Himanshu Sinha, a digital marketing executive for Expedia, Inc., personalization can be a double-edged sword.

On one hand, businesses say that segmented and targeted emails generate 58% of their revenues (according to the DMA’s 2015 National Client Email Report). On the other, it’s critical that marketers execute their personalization efforts carefully and properly. An email sent with the wrong personalization or at the wrong time can undo years of loyalty and brand building. It can also remind the recipient they’re communicating with a machine and not a person.

Expedia connects with its customers

Expedia, Inc. is a global leader in online travel, and is also a leader in the digital marketing landscape. The company is the world’s largest diversified travel platform and includes many well-known brands such as Travelocity, Hotels.com, Orbitz Worldwide, and HomeAway, among others. Expedia works at a massive scale online, fielding over 450 million website visits per month from 75 different countries as well as 45 million calls per year. They also power more than 100,000 offline travel agents and work with a large number of partners. That group consists of more than 269,000 hotels, 1.2 million vacation rentals, 475 different airlines, and 150 car rental companies. Their goal is to achieve and maintain best-in-class customer and partner experiences.

With such a vast and diverse empire, achieving a personalized experience for their customers is an extremely complex undertaking. Expedia is successful because it looks past any single method or device and focuses on the customer purchase journey. By looking beyond individual personalization methods and toward the bigger picture, Expedia has been able to triple its customer engagement rate. That’s a result any business would love to have.

But Sinha explains that to get it right, everything must be carefully planned to maintain a relationship with the customer. Businesses commonly build programs too complex for their own good. They overuse segmentation or get too personalized to the point where it’s off-putting. Segmentation is obviously an excellent and important tool for marketers, but they must use it properly and carefully. And personalization shouldn’t be so aggressive that it’s noticeable. Experts continue to discover that customers want personalization, but not at the expense of privacy. If a personalized effort is too obvious, such as a banner ad that follows the customer after a recent purchase, they may form a negative opinion of the company, according to a recent study from the Journal of Retailing at New York University.

You have to be versatile in personalization

Utilizing the right technology to piece everything together also helps. All touchpoints need to be delivering a consistent experience. That way, someone making a decision over the phone can see their order immediately reflected on the website and confirmed via email. “Customers don’t differentiate touch-points,” Sinha said. “They just expect unified communications across every interaction.”

There’s also the chance that the content meant to be personalized is simply wrong, usually due to data quality issues. Inserting the wrong name into the content or showing deals and offers that are completely irrelevant to the end user is a bad experience that reduces trust and loyalty. If Expedia, for example, showed the most popular deals from Christchurch to someone living in Los Angeles, that wouldn’t be a great experience for either party! The customer feels like the company doesn’t understand her, and the company is less likely to make a sale.

All of this boils down to three main things to remember when it comes to personalization. These are key takeaways for any email marketer, whether they’re working for their local flower shop or for a large enterprise like Expedia:

  1. If you’re going to use personalization, get it right. Misfiring on someone’s name or showing them content that’s not relevant can undo years of work.
  2. Don’t overdo it. Just get the right offers in front of the right audience. Make sure to shy away from being too creepy or overbearing.
  3. Keep the experience consistent across your brand channels. Utilize technology to keep all touchpoints up-to-date so you can avoid conflicts down the road.

(Himanshu Sinha showcased some of this information at &THEN in Los Angeles in October 2016.)

About the Author

Will Devlin

A 20-year email marketing veteran, Will has focused on marketing strategy and execution for MessageGears since 2014. He has extensive experience on both the retail customer and service side of email marketing, and he’s interested in helping businesses better understand how they can make the most of the work they put into their email campaigns.