Personalization is dead, long live personalization

In our pursuit of customers through personalization, we broke all kinds of social contracts -- which had the opposite of its intended effect. Welcome to the era of partnership-based personalization.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Aarron Spinley, experience anthropologist and growth futurist. 

I "met" Aarron (2 a's, 2 r's) Spinley online -- and I've never met him in person. But we have become both good friends and intellectual colleagues. What prompted this post is one of our discussions that  touched on personalization. I realized that this dude has a really well thought out outlook on personalization -- where its come from, where it's been, where it is, and where it's headed -- and a framework that provides you with a means to actually think about it. He is dead on when it comes to the ideas. But there is an added bonus: He's a great conversational writer. Damn.

Aarron calls himself an experience anthropologist and growth futurist. That shows you where his heart is. Here is something that he wrote for me when I asked him about what he wanted to see here:

Aarron Spinley is a growth strategist and futurist who observes culture, society, and digital. With a passion for designed human experience and the social sciences, he writes, consults, and speaks in the fields of business growth and customer engagement through his work at Spinley.co.

He has consulted to major brands in many countries and held senior positions with Marsh, WTI, Tigerspike, and SAP. He draws on wide experience including the study of the performing arts and futurism, and has established and led businesses in fields as diverse as corporate risk advisory to a creative technology agency.

He couldn't have described it any better himself. Oh wait, he did! But it fits like a glove. As does the additional title that I am going to bestow on him: Really Good Person.

I don't want you to miss a word of this engaging piece so I'm shutting up. Take it away, Aarron.

This recent release from Gartner -- as the analyst firm promoted their latest offering to the marketing profession, "Predicts 2020: Marketers, They're Just Not That Into You" -- certainly turned heads in December.

And that's what it was supposed to do. It is classic "provocative appeals" theory, where the principal (in this case Gartner) seeks to draw attention through taking a position which could be anti-establishment, or even extreme.

Humor is always a useful ingredient as well, such as Burger King's quite brilliant mobile billboard in the UK.


But I digress.

Gartner's headline did the trick. Nowadays, we call it "clickbait." And it got me. I read it. You probably did too. And whilst you can likely tell from my headline that I don't entirely buy it, I am grateful as it has spurred on this overdue piece from me.

The central premise of all my work is the pursuit of "growth." Whether that be through all the traditional means like sales revenue, share, loyalty/retention, or market cap etc; or growth of the organisation itself (often to the same ends but not exclusively) through purpose, culture, carrier principles, and leadership. As a result, I advocate the art and science of creating experiences, such that they evoke target behaviours. I study business, tech, society, and culture. In that sense, I am probably a quintessential evangelist of the experience economy. That being my professional background, here's my proposition:

Gartner forgot about the terrain.

There is no point sending troops into the jungle in typhoon season issued with desert fatigues and equipped with bandannas to avoid breathing in dust, and special covers to stop sand from jamming their weapons. None of that will help. Their first enemies will be wet socks and flies and malaria. They'll never make it to the fight.

Terrain -- or context -- is always key, and the terrain in this case is a little thing called societal consumption behaviour (SCB). Whilst SCB is heavily accented to local cultures, its overriding trends are both global and macro.

Consumer psychology is not something that we can wish away. It is changing all around us and has done so at a rapid pace since the late 2000's, entering breakneck territory in the last half of this just concluded decade. All the predictions in the world can't ignore that human idiosyncrasies are moving markets -- fast -- and that as we embark on the next decade, we can expect more of the same.

Pretending that it isn't what it is, simply because a large portion of brands and leaders have not yet handled the terrain -- for a range of reasons -- is like not entering the jungle in the first place.

But the jungle is where the victory is. The truth is that engaged customers become engaged because of the collection of experiences that we provide them, and the way that we make them feel. Human beings feel connected when we provide the environment for connection. In other words, it's personal. Ergo, personalisation isn't exactly optional. So, let's talk about where we are now, and I'll start by talking about where we are not.

We are not at a mature apex in the journey of personalization technology or tactics.

The truth is that we have only just begun. Cloud computing became mainstream in 2012. Think about how far that has already come, about the businesses that couldn't -- and didn't -- exist beforehand.

We had 2 billion internet users then, and whilst that was up dramatically from 1 billion in 2007, it pales compared to the 4.5 billion we were approaching in 2019. It was only 5 years ago (2015) that we started consuming the internet on mobile as the dominant means (over PC), which truly infused it in our lives. It has become us. Mobile is now trending toward an involuntary extension of ourselves.

Wave away a fly. Hail a taxi. Scratch your nose. Swipe right.

Through all this our consumption behaviour, our attitudes, our expectations, evolved and evolved. The decline of trust accelerated. Brands found themselves in a digital quagmire, trying to shout to be heard.

Subsequently, we raced into new domains, ala "personalization." The principle was right, remains right, but quite predictably new paradigms come with new problems.

A friend of mine, Scott Treller who runs a CX software business in Australia, sometimes tells a story that goes a little like this:

Standing at a BBQ, a young woman is approached by a smiling guest.

"Hey there Sophie", he grins.

A little taken aback, Sophie furrows her brow. "Hi…um, have we met?"

"Oh not in person" came the reply – and so too the forever grin. "But you wandered by my work once".

Sophie burst out laughing. Then stopped. He was serious.

"So anyway", he continued. "I'd really like to get to know you a bit more, but I know you have to run in 20 minutes to pick up little Bobby from school before you visit your Dad for dinner. How is Steve by the way? Recovered from that bowel problem?"

Not sensing her growing unease for even a moment, he ploughed on.

"Because I really need you to spend time with me, but isn't life so busy these days, so full of choices!"

He leans in, lowers his tone. "Don't worry, I get it".

Sophie can't breathe.

"So hey, I've bought you a gin and tonic to save a little time. I know how much you love them, and this one has that Schweppes tonic that you like, and I made sure the bartender used lime after that nasty episode you had with the cucumber in Spain last year".

And the grin just kept on coming.

Don't laugh, or do, but that's precisely the way that many brands have behaved.

The irony is that in our pursuit of customers through "personalization" we broke all kinds of social contracts, and we thought we could do that because it was digital. Given time, this had the opposite effect to its intent. As much as society has evolved to expect better and better personal experiences -- many of them disposable -- it doesn't want to feel disposable itself.  And it will, if there is not legitimacy in the connection.

So, if we're not yet at maturity in personalization, then where are we? Let me frame it like this.

Phase 1

When we realized that people didn't want to be treated as "just another number,"  we established practices that we thought would be more effective selling to them, like putting their name in an email greeting, instead of "Dear Customer." Personalization was an email strategy, and not much more. This is where a lot of brands are still occupied today.

Phase 2

Many did take the next step, creating login's to websites in order to publish their customers' name in the corner, and allow them to "manage" their own account. Sort of. We let them change their contact details and billing information and see purchase history. The new frontier of trust -- at least in the limited (but valid) terms that marketers have hedged it -- was almost exclusively about the security of that data, particularly with mandatory disclosure law related to personally identifiable information (PII) entering mainstream western economies, and only amplified with the more recent arrival of GDPR.

Phase 3

As companies embraced more sophisticated instruments, they started using the "gorilla" tactics that Scott's little story draws out so beautifully. They began harnessing the information gathered about customers to provide more tailored messages, vary the splash page on websites based on user profiles, inserting cookies and tracking behaviours, geo-fencing store assets -- or even competitor locations! -- and creating "intervention" tactics. Logically, we started sharing information across our business ecosystems, partnerships, and other channels to create an ever-enriched pool of customer information and records, and then began writing algorithms within marketing engines to vary engagement activities in real time. We started following our customers on social media sites. There are many other examples that this learned readership will know of, so I'll stop there, but I think you get the point.

And on the seventh day, we rested. Or should have.

Critics argue that at no point did marketers pause or engage in a respectful dialogue with customers about any of this. Our view of personalization stemmed from an almost surveillance-state mindset that the KGB would have been proud of during the cold war.

But hold on. These are good-hearted marketing folk: citizens, partners, fathers, mothers, coaches, and mentors. Everyday people. Professional people. The intent was never sinister. They were simply trying to grow their business.

The problem was they were operating in uncharted waters where there was no rule book. No one had written one. Should we have known better? That's another debate. But to many consumers, some of our tactics had become kind of creepy.

Decline of trust

Much is written about the decline of trust in society. I am one of those commentators. I have researched it, speak on it often, and offer a model to help executives think critically about how trust is fostered, created, and maintained.

This is a wider issue, not just for the marketing and CRM profession. The highly respected Edelman Trust Barometer has monitored the decline of trust across business and government for a long time. It is not a new phenomenon, but it is increasingly material.

In September 2018, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres felt compelled to say this:

"Our world is suffering from a bad case of 'trust deficit disorder'. Trust is at a breaking point. Trust in national institutions. Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order."

This is a macro societal problem driven by a multitude of factors. Just think of the effect to consumer confidence in brands at large, following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

I am also drawn to the growing societal realisation -- and pushback -- on device addiction, and the need to manage our state of connection. Authors Brian Solis ("Lifescale", Wiley 2019), and Nir Eyal ("Indistractable", BenBella 2019) have both written popular and important works on this subject.

We also now know that there is a direct link between the level of individual social media consumption and our mental health. Society is having a re-think. We're evolving again. We were always going to.

So, am I making the case for Gartner that indeed personalization could well be dropped by 80% of marketers by 2025? Well, if you are one of those marketers and you do, your competitors will -- as I said in the headline -- eat you alive!

First, Gartner kind of gave themselves away in a quote from one of their directors when they say:

"… (consumers) increasingly cluttered email inboxes and mobile phone notification centers may lead them to ignore even the most carefully personalized and contextualized message. Marketers must really adopt the basics when it comes to test and learn before investing in personalization technology and new tactics."

In other words, they are referencing the many companies still caught up in phase 1 (see above). It's an attention-grabbing headline, but they're not really talking about personalization.

Secondly, in the same release they call out the increased need for Consent Management. They forecast that by 2024 more than half of the online advertisements will be influenced by AI-identified emotions, and that by 2022 a quarter of marketing departments, will have a dedicated behavioral scientist or ethnographer on staff.

Also: Cookie consent: Most websites break law by making it hard to 'reject all' tracking

Why would you do any of that, if personalization was dead? Come on now.

What we really need to talk about is not how to amputate personalisation, but about its evolution.

The proliferation of technologies from vendors (e.g. CRM), the market rationalisation through acquisition and re-imagination of some capabilities (e.g. marketing automation); the consumption or embedding of newer technologies like user journey orchestration or identity management into wider eco-systems; and the emergence of new capabilities (e.g. AI and experience management) -- all present a thought-provoking landscape for brand owners. It challenges old assumptions and alliances.

Most of all, it challenges our strategy competence.

One of the fallouts from all of this, in my estimation, is an industry-wide confusion on (or perhaps just a need to re-learn), the roles of different customer systems in value creation.

I am privileged to be writing this article in Paul's column which is fitting, because the most complete and insightful work on this subject can be found in his book, 'The Commonwealth of Self-Interest'. Check out chapters 13 and 14, which deal with systems of record versus systems of engagement. The whole book is a masterpiece, seriously, and if you're a reader of this column you'll enjoy that familiar tone and dry humour of his.

By the way, that's another form of personalisation… because personalization is a two-way street, it's a conversation. (But that's an article for another time.)

In my own work, I often call this group of technologies, "systems of customer control", which is not to say that we control our customers, but it is to say that we --  in partnership with customers -- can jointly control our shared experiences and therefore outcomes.

  • Partnership (for)
  • Jointly
  • Shared
  • Outcomes

It provides a governance lens on the role of customer programs, but it's more than that. Think about it: Isn't that how we have always grown relationships?

So, in the spirit of never doing a prediction piece, here's my 9-point "hypothesis" partly in response -- but not really -- to Gartner's clever provocation, through to the close of 2025.

  1. Identity management will be critical (consent, compliance, access, UX).
  2. AI will become embedded (not a software adjunct); both pervasive and persuasive.
  3. Brands that adopt 2 but not 1 (above), will risk ending up in court and being rejected by their markets.
  4. Assisted sentiment analysis will pervade both tech and experience design (see 2).
  5. Social sciences disciplines within marketing teams will increase (way overdue).
  6. Investment into creative culture will accelerate.
  7. The CRM category will to continue to grow, but normalise to ~5% YoY (probably).
  8. The Customer engagement category will be the fastest growing in history (almost certainly).

All of this will happen because at the end of the day, we all just want (read: need) to be closer to our customers to advance our businesses and our mission. In all human relationships, "closeness" stems from a growing familiarity, a sense of safety, predictability, doing the right thing (context!), and of caring. Brands can't escape this, not for a millisecond.

Now, the smart ones in the room will have noticed what they think is a typo. I said I had a 9-point hypothesis, but only gave you eight. Nope, I didn't forget. I was setting you up. Another one is coming. Are you ready? Are you? Really??

What I am doing right now is building your anticipation.

I'm borrowing from a concept in experience design called "anticipatory design," which triggers intrigue and causes a target (you!) to decide to continue with me, because we have now created a more personal user flow, which I could only do because I had some insight about you (namely that you read this far so you must be at least partially interested). I hope I am making my point.

Anyway, the crescendo of this piece, the 9th and final point in my, by-2025-hypothesis, is this:

 9. Like a toddler who, after a long time crawling and falling (with the scars to prove it) is finally taking their first steps with    confidence, we will have learnt from the early stages of our journey, and the industry will adopt a new era of "partnership-based personalisation".

Perhaps that's the optimist in me talking, but it's also the powerful opportunity in front of us. Let's all agree -- Gartner, you and I -- to put it another way:

Personalization is dead. Long live personalization.

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