It’s time to move beyond personalisation 

Is personalised marketing a brand killer? It could be, argues Thunderhead ANZ vice president, Aaron Spinley.

The education sector has long understood the importance of personalised content to the function of memory.

Good teachers know that we remember things better if we care about them, and the best way to help someone care about something is to make it personal. This enables the information to traverse our limbic system, a pre-requisite for storage into our long-term memory.

The marketing profession recognised this, most obviously through the rise of behavioural science in the ad industry, and “personalisation” was born.

Or at least, our version of it was.

For instance, some clever clogs figured out that their email campaigns had better results when they greeted the recipient by name, eg “Dear Steve”. One study I read reckons an improvement of over 26%.

Then we progressed to personalising at the point of the transaction, like when you log into a web store, and it welcomes you by name and lets you manage your payment preferences. That was phase two.

This was followed quickly by phase three, characterised by our adoption of all those things that society now refers to as “creepy”. Gorilla data tactics, abuse of trust, the absence of consent, pervasive promotion, and so on.

So, for many and myself included, there was a need to renovate the practice, to enshrine a more ethical, more relational and co-created phase of personalisation. Something that was more genuinely based on customer engagement principles and lifetime customer value outcomes.

But alas, many have now concluded that personalisation, that both the term and many of its practices, are just too tainted. Turns out personalisation, the marketing tactic, isn’t very personal at all! And no adjacent loyalty program can hide the fact that the customer is being dehumanised.

No, renovation isn’t enough. And what I’ve come to learn is that the shift we need to make is not simply another iteration of internally driven marketing practice.

From inside-out to outside-in 

Think of all those customer-facing or enabling technologies that we have. From systems of record like ERP or sales and service CRM, to marketing automation and transaction engines like digital commerce, all the way to our ad-tech and beyond.

They all represent an “Inside-Out” operating model. It is marketing’s digital expression of the industrial era.

This is all about optimising a process toward an internal objective, by imposing that process on the customer. As a result, brands have had to be channel-specific, and tactical.

But the world has changed.

The demands of modern and connected society are a disruptive force on that traditional mindset. While internal streamlining is entirely valid, this is not nearly enough to create actual engagement with actual customers. Not anymore.

It is the customer, not the company, that is the sole arbiter of whether something is “personal”. To argue otherwise is to contradict the workings of the limbic system.

Good luck with that.

Welcome to individualisation

This isn’t semantics. The progression of value from personalisation to individualisation, of maturity really, recognises customers as human beings and aligns our interactions with them accordingly.

It requires a change in the way that we think.

  • From segments to people
  • From campaigns to conversations
  • From transactional to relational
  • From data-driven to context and intent-driven
  • From channel based to channel agnostic

Each one of these could be an article, but I’ll summarise by saying that this speaks to the long-heralded (re)humanisation of brands.

Where to for the marketing and communications sector?

Personalisation isn’t dead. Far from it. Inside-out marketing practice will continue, but it has an irreversible PR problem. Anything that looks like pervasive promotion is now increasingly rejected by a society that is fighting back against fake news.

Authenticity is in high demand. Trust is at a premium.

And besides, personalisation doesn’t happen “in-the-moment”. It’s not a conversation. The paradigm shifted, was always going to, the moment that the promise of real-time connection became, well, real.

So where to now for the marketing and communications sector?

Well, that’s a question of operating model if you’re company-side, and offering if you’re agency-side, but this is likely one of the most definitive business transformations in years so ignoring it isn’t exactly an option. That might just be dodo-esque.

Engagement as a Service then? A new data strategy? Definitely a philosophical overhaul.

What is certain is that society continues to change, even faster than before, and as we contemplate a post-COVID world, many believe that there has never been a more vivid and transformative time for leaders.

Bring it on.

Aaron Spinley is the vice president ANZ of Thunderhead.


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