Are You Creepy for Using Content Personalization

This article is the fourth in our series of posts focusing on content personalization: What is it, what are the benefits, and how can you implement it into your current marketing strategy? In our previous article, we looked at some of the benefits of content personalization. In this article, we’ll discuss whether or not personalizing your content makes you “creepy.” 

If you are an avid social media user, you have likely come across a comment or meme that says something along the lines of:

“Oh hey, look, an ad for a product that I want but never Googled or discussed with anyone.”

It’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it? To think that our phones can “listen” in and then generate ads or suggested content based on what we were discussing. Once, I was commenting back and forth with a friend on Facebook, talking about tea, when I started to get ads for it. And I can always know when someone in my house is searching for an item to buy because I start to see targeted ads for them on my Facebook news feed (once from the Home Depot for faucets and another from Home Depot for ceiling fans). 

We like to joke that Google is like Big Brother, always listening in on our conversations. That somehow Google has created some proprietary technology to read minds. And even though we have been getting targeted online advertisements (and even in email and game apps), there is still an uncomfortable feeling. Much of what we do online is not private (or can be “uncovered” regardless), and yet we still desire a semblance of privacy.

“Creepy” or not, such personalization is here to stay, and it is only going to get even more accurate, so we all—users and marketers—might as well get on board.

Data is Collected All the Time

Data is collected on us all the time, whether we realize it or not (or realize just how much information is being shared). These “digital footprints,” as David Nield explains in a Gizmodo article on data collection, are left each time you visit a website, which the website uses to track your activities and identify you, to some degree. This information is reported by your browser of choice to the website(s) that you visit. Information includes:

  • IP (Internet Protocol) Address, which is a unique numerical identification number given to every device (from desktops to tablets) that can connect to a computer network that uses IP Addresses to communicate. This number can also be used to approximate your location anywhere in the world.
  • The browser name, which tells the website which browser and version you’re using to access it. Your browser also provides information on any plugins that you may have installed.
  • The operating system, including what version.
  • The type of device (desktop, mobile) as well as CPU (the processor) and GPU (the graphics processor) 

The browser can even give out information as to how much battery your phone has left and whether or not it is charging. 

Following the Cookie Crumbs

But all that shared information is just the tip of the iceberg. If you were to visit ten websites, chances are that the majority of them would have a pop-up prompt as soon as you access the site, providing a cookie disclaimer and asking you to accept or deny. 

A cookie is a digital file that a website will leave on your computer, with the point of tracking you (akin to Hansel and Gretel). With this file left on your computer, the website can identify if you’ve visited before and use the information in there to make your visit a bit more personalized. Cookies can log the time you’ve spent on a page, what items you’ve clicked on, and keep a history of the items you’ve purchased. 

Depending on the website and how they use cookies, this personalization could mean anything from remembering your location (such as for weather and news updates) to acknowledging you accordingly (“Welcome Back!” or “We’ve Missed You!” [if you haven’t visited the site in a while]).

Personalizing is Here to Stay

Nearly every company with the means (i.e., resources: time and money) is personalizing their content. But since it’s still a relatively new thing (within the past decade), it still comes off as creepy and unnerving. People forget that they’re being tracked when they browse the Internet. And they don’t always realize just how much information is being provided. The discrepancy between what the customer knows (or thinks they know) is being collected to what is actually being collected is a big one.

But with everything, there is a line, and you can go too far. You want to personalize your content for your users to provide them with a better user experience. But you don’t want to scare them with so much personalization that it seems as if you are outside their house, watching their every move. If you want to successfully employ content personalization, here are some tidbits to keep in mind:

Seek Consent from Your Users

Aside from notifying that you’re collecting cookies (which in the EU is required by law), you should let your audience know that you’re collecting data on them and also let them know what this data is and how it will be used. A good idea for your brand and your marketing is to fully disclose this information and request your audience’s consent. It seems counterproductive, but it’s the right thing to do (both in the moral and business sense). Think about it: Would you rather personalize content for a willing or unwilling member of your audience? Who is more likely to be influenced by content that your personalization algorithm suggests? 

Be Sure to Define “Data”

The basic definition of data is “information,” but when companies refer to data, they are generally more specific than that. But what exactly their definition of “data” is remains a mystery to their audience. As mentioned in the paragraph above, you need to define exactly what “data” is. Is it just information about their hardware and software? Are you seeking personal information about them, such as age, gender, health, income, and so on? Defining data is not only beneficial for your audience but for you as well, because you will be able to narrow in on exactly what information you need to collect in order to meet your objectives. 

Don’t Get Too Personal

Again, if you spend quite a bit of your free time perusing your social media accounts, then you may have seen an ad for apparel, but not just any apparel—something specific to you. For example, if you live in Kansas, you may see an ad for a shirt that says, “The best people come from Kansas.” Or it could be a shirt with your first or last name. During my birthday month, and because I was of the legal drinking age, I got a Jägermeister ad wishing me a happy birthday, reminding me that a shot of Jägermeister was a great choice for a birthday drink. 

As a marketer, I’m used to these types of ads. They don’t surprise me or shock me. I know why I am seeing these types of ads and can usually pick out what variables they targeted. (As an aside, some, however, are so off-the-wall crazy. I always make sure to click the “Why am I seeing this ad?” and it is usually because of my gender, age range, and home country—which can describe a large portion of the population. And the ad is hardly “personalized” to me since it never even comes close to being something in which I would show interest.)

Content personalization starts to become especially creepy when a company’s personalization algorithm is so good that it can use data collected on you to deduce something about you. For example, let’s say for the past week you Google things like:

  • Camping in Colorado
  • Best hiking in Colorado
  • Flights to Colorado

Don’t be surprised if you start seeing advertisements for camping gear and accessories like hiking boots, tents, and more. A company can use the combination of these queries and other information about you to deduce that you are probably taking a vacation to go hiking and camping in Colorado and will, therefore, target you with ads based on that information.

Go Forth and Personalize

Content personalization is an important part of any content strategy, and you can reap serious benefits if you execute it successfully. While you don’t want to come off like Leslie Mann in the 2015 series of Jergens commercials, creepily popping into people’s bathrooms, you also don’t want to be so broad in the variables you choose that your “personalization” is so generic.

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