Marketers are lost in the dark playground of personalisation

Many marketers are on a never-ending mission to nail the perfect personalisation ecosystem, but their attempts are most likely futile, writes AKQA's Shaun Rowland.

Firstly, before you start reading me – do this. Tim Urban wrote what I consider to be the definitive post on procrastination. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour: go here first and enjoy the next twenty minutes – read both parts and pay attention to what he calls “The Dark Playground”.

Back? Good, let’s continue… Just like the dark playground of procrastination, there’s a dark playground of personalisation happening in marketing land. It’s a condition that leads to inertia, fatigue, and frustration, but with the illusion that something is being achieved. This condition is known as ‘personalisation paralysis’.

According to a recent survey by Acquia: “72% of marketers reported that technology was making it more difficult to offer personalised customer experiences. Nevertheless, 61% of marketers plan to spend more on marketing technology in 2019.”

It seems a little odd that marketers are investing more in the very thing that they claim is making it more difficult for them to do what they want to do. They are also making the mistake of thinking that another piece of technology will solve their personalisation problems. It’s the classic sunk cost fallacy of throwing good money after bad.

There is a lot of strategic thinking and planning happening in the personalisation space – some of this is warranted, but I believe a significant amount of it is happening due to procrastination.

Many marketers are on a never-ending mission to nail the perfect personalisation ecosystem, the ultimate segmentation model, or build a true 360° view of their customers.

Marketers are stuck in Tim Urban’s dark playground of procrastination – scurrying around, distracted by the latest shiny thing, devouring frameworks and principles, but feeling empty and unsatisfied as they know nothing productive is actually being done.

According to Tim Pyhcyl, a procrastination researcher at Carelton University in Ottawa and author of ‘solving the procrastination puzzle’, there are six task characteristics that make people more likely to procrastinate:

  • Be boring
  • Be frustrating
  • Be difficult
  • Lack personal meaning and intrinsic rewards
  • Be ambiguous
  • Be unstructured

Personalisation programs tick a lot of those boxes: missing data or a lack of channel integration can be incredibly frustrating. It can be difficult, with 72% of marketers saying tech is getting in the way. It’s often ambiguous as we ask ‘why are we personalising, what is it designed to achieve?’. Finally, it’s unstructured: with ‘where do we start?’ becoming the ever-present question. It’s no wonder so many personalisation programs get stuck in a loop of workshops and strategy refinements without any real results.

A good way to break out of this dark playground is to apply a simple framework and then focus on a narrow use case or a couple of use cases, to begin with.

Spotify, Netflix, Amazon – the brands seen as leaders in this space – didn’t start to personalise the entire end-to-end customer experience from day one. If you do this, you are doomed before start. It won’t be long before paralysis kicks in and you’ve lost yet another week in the dark playground.

Instead, choose a customer experience that has a measurable conversion point and create a hypothesis to run a personalisation test against it. Make sure that there’s a problem or opportunity here that needs solving and that personalisation is a good opportunity to solve it.

To do this, undertake a quick opportunity size analysis and then apply the following six Ws.


‘Because the tech is available’ is not a valid answer, and neither is ‘customers demand personalisation’. Instead, what business goals and objectives do you think personalisation will help achieve? Not every interaction needs to be personalised. Personalisation takes a lot of work as you need to develop creative and content, so it should only be used when it drives customer and business value. Every personalisation activity must have a business objective associated with it and it must be measurable. You won’t get a business case up for a spanking new customer data platform if there is no commercial outcome associated with it.


Which audiences and what segments are you seeking to personalise for? Again, it may not be commercially viable to create ten creative variants of one email. Pick those segments that have the highest value or propensity to convert.


What experience are you going to personalise? Choose a moment that can be personalised using your current tech or that only requires minor development work to enable it. But choose one or several that warrant personalisation – again, look to the leaders, Spotify and Netflix don’t personalise every single interaction, they concentrate on personalising features and content that genuinely resonate with the customer and drive action.


What channels are you going to personalise? The nirvana state is all channels working in perfect cross-device harmony together. But if you are fixated on achieving this from day one then you’re likely to spend yet more time in that dark playground, researching to death the way to overcome Safari’s third party cookie restrictions or how a DMP works.


Think of the context of your customer’s life – there’s no point sending a highly personalised eDM to someone if it lands in their inbox at a time when it won’t stand out and get that all important open. Context + content = King.


The most important W of all. Apply a customer and business lens to the activity: will it increase customer satisfaction and/or deliver a business outcome? Is the audience volume worth the effort, or will it only target 25 people? Prioritise activities against the PIE criteria (potential, influence, effort) to evaluate if this personalisation approach is worthwhile.

Once you have answered the six Ws then apply a H: How? Work out how you can execute based on what tech you have today. Don’t go into the dark playground to find more otherwise you’ll be lost there for weeks!

Decide whether this constitutes an minimum viable product (MVP) you can test in the market. If it does, then great – you have your first personalisation activity ready to put into production.

If not, then address the gaps for MVP – but only for the MVP. Launch into the market and test. Understand what moves the dial and what doesn’t, then apply these learnings to future activities.

Applying this approach means that you can better understand what tech capabilities you need from a series of experiments and – at the same time – start to build your data and customer architecture to support future growth.

There is no doubt that personalisation requires significant investment in technology to enable it at scale, particularly to execute automatically across channel using machine learning and predictive analytics, but whilst that’s being designed, built, and operationalised there is so much marketers could be doing today to deliver more relevant customer experiences.

The only way to overcome procrastination is to get started. So get to it.

Shaun Rowland is director, marketing strategy and performance at AKQA.


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