Do Consumers Actually Want Personalization?

Personalization strategies have to be done right to be worthwhile


So much is made of personalization in the modern marketing conversation that you'd be forgiven for imagining most people actively want it. But do they really?

There are, of course, incredibly satisfying experiences to be had when a user's data is harnessed to build a more effective service. Take Spotify's Discover Weekly feature, for example, which examines a user's listening history and suggests new music to them in the form of a weekly playlist. Or YouTube's video suggestion algorithm, which more often than not hits the nail on the head. There are positive uses out there, but there's also a lot of useless personalization for personalization's sake, and consumers will jut see through it.

It's important to note the distinction between expecting a personalized experience and demanding one. Users have become comfortable with their purchasing histories being used to inform what marketing material they do and don't see. Most consumers are even comfortable with their names being used on banner ads and their online activity being explicitly referenced in targeted marketing emails. Acceptance of modern advertising techniques, though, doesn't necessarily mean users are clamoring for their data to be manipulated and marketed back to them.

This is fundamentally not the case. In a study by Acquia, who surveyed 1,000 consumers from the UK and France in April, just 2.6% of respondents chose personalization as the most important facet of a brand's digital presence. Despite the fanfare around personalized content, only 26 respondents from 1000 valued it highly enough to put it above other, more conventional aspects of a brand's digital presence.

When this figure is compared to the overwhelming winner - that a brand's website be easy to navigate (65%) - it gives clearer picture of the gap that exists between marketers and their audiences. For all that personalization in marketing campaigns can engender loyalty or encourage sales, it's just not something audiences think about. Ultimately, users want digital products to work properly and be free of friction. Being bombarded with emails featuring similar items than one you stumbled across and only lazily showed any interest in, on the other hand, doesn't capture the imagination. To put the figure in further context, 13% of respondents said a good-looking website is the most important thing to them. On top of this, a survey of 1000 people carried out by Segment found that just 7% of people expressed frustration when an online shopping experience felt impersonal.

The rebuttal from marketers would be that personalization, at its best, is not something that users will even be aware is happening. Being able to tailor offer to different customers based on their buying or browsing histories can be a powerful tool, and one that is seamless when done properly. The negative side is buying a pair of trainers from one store and having others advertise the same trainers incessantly even after purchase. Or, worse still, when companies wildly overreach on their data collection and end up detecting a customer's pregnancy before even they do.

This will all change in a matter of weeks, with the implementation of GDPR. The sweeping legislation will heavily restrict the amount of data that companies will be able to work with. Having to ask audiences to explicitly opt in to data usage will make personalization secondary to initial data acquisition, but it'll be interesting to see exactly what it does to data usage strategies going forward. Those who fail to comply with the new regulations could be receiving hefty fines - up to 4% of global turnover - so it is important that marketing teams have their post-GDPR strategies figured out.

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The problem with an audience so seemingly indifferent to personalization is that brands will have very little else to offer them in exchange for their data. If users were engaged with their personalized experiences and valued them, they would opt in for data usage because they can see its positive impact. The number of voluntary opt-ins will undoubtedly be higher than 2.6%, but the figure doesn't bode well for brands convinced they're already creating valuable personalized interactions. Audiences, ultimately, don't care about the ways in which products are being marketed to them, and brands will have to offer something more than a targeted, personalized experience if they want to see their email lists repopulated.

Ultimately, users will be happy with personalized experiences if they happen seamlessly and provide genuine value. By all means, build great digital products that have personalization at their core, but don't expect users to actively care about them. This is even more pertinent now because of GDPR, and brands will have to use data in meaningful ways if they expect their audiences to willingly give over their information. 


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