Are you personalising or being personal in communications?

One of the most common misconceptions in marketing is that ‘personalisation’ and ‘being personal’ are the same thing. It’s an easy mistake to make, but they’re far from the same when it comes to building brand affinity and engagement.

Both strategies use what they know to get a customer to look twice at their email and feel like they’re not just another number in a database, but are either of them effective? Recent research from Gartner suggests that, at least when it comes to personalisation, fewer and fewer marketers would agree.

However, there’s a crucial difference between personalisation and being personal or relevant, and that’s knowing what your customer likes. Personalising a communication using the customer’s name and possibly other details, such as their birthday, is an effective way to stand out from more generic ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ emails. But it’s unlikely to create a lasting, or even immediate, impression without catching their attention with something they care about.

Take Spotify, for example. If Spotify knows you’ve listened to 100 hours of Queen and the Top Gun soundtrack, it’s going to recommend something similar because the data from your history supports it.

Another great example is Netflix. Having collected data about the films and television shows users watch, it’s easy and effective to send promotional emails suggesting new shows that a customer might like (based on their viewing history). Not only this, but by adding a call-to-action in the email itself, it’s easy to add to the customer’s list or start viewing straight away while it’s still fresh in their mind.

But is it even that important to be relevant? Short answer: yes.

While it’s nice to be acknowledged, your customer isn’t looking for a pen pal or bestie – they’re looking for something that matters to them, their interests and their habits. So, if you send an email that reads:

Hey John. Hungry? Get a free Tuna Sandwich through the app today!

It’s personalised. It’s nice. But I (John, in this case) am not hungry because it’s 9 AM, I’ve had breakfast and I don’t like Tuna; I prefer Cheese Toasties.

If your business already conducted a customer survey prior to this communication, however, you have the tools to relate to your customer’s likes and habits. With relevancy in mind, and data backing up your strategy, you can send a push notification or email at 12 PM that reads:

Hey John. Hungry? Get a free Cheese Toastie through the app today!

It’s much more likely that John clicked through for a Cheese Toastie than a Tuna Sandwich. And that’s a key point. Being personal doesn’t just help a business’ sales, it also helps build brand affinity. No matter how well they’re crafted, if you send your customers an armful of generic communications hoping one sticks eventually they’ll get frustrated, stop opening emails, or unsubscribe from the list altogether. But one or two emails with tailored, relevant content based on data you’ve collected has a better chance of piquing a customer’s interest and keeping them interested in many emails to come.

Of course, as with anything, there is a line between being personal and being creepy that shouldn’t be crossed – but that’s also the importance of proper consent. Knowing your customers’ favourite music, favourite sandwiches, and favourite books based on information they’ve consented you to gather will bring you one step closer to communicating with them on a more personal level.

For example, in the mass of emails I’m sent I’ll always click on two things: plants and coffee. Do I need to buy either right now? No. My house is slowly turning into a jungle and I’ve got enough coffee to last another couple of months. But, if it turns out my favourite coffee is back in stock or that a new pet-friendly house plant was added to the roster, the chances of me reaching for my credit card are much higher. And as these suggestions are based on my purchase history, I never feel uncomfortable.

While your business’ more successful campaigns might include personalisation, it’s not the epitome of building brand affinity. That comes with relevancy – making communications better tailored to their preferences and spending habits by knowing what your customers like, rather than spamming them with products they might like.

Even if personalisation gets the door opened, being personal is what’ll get you a cup of tea, a biscuit, and an invitation to brunch next Sunday.


This article first appeared on Marketing Gazette on 13 July 2020.