Is Personalization Creepy?

HowToPersonalizeWithoutBeingCreepyWe know that personalization works, but is it creepy?  This is a conversation that comes up quite often.  Companies want to use personalization in their marketing because they see the case studies and statistics that prove it works.  They want a piece of the cake, but the fear of being creepy holds them back.

The fear of being creepy is absolutely warranted – if you violate people’s expectations, it’s hard to regain the trust.  In this post I would like to argue that personalization in marketing is not creepy, as long as you maintain trust with those that engage with your brand.

Let’s take a look at Netflix.  They recommend tv shows and movies based on what they know about you.  Is this creepy?  Most would agree that it is not, and the reason is that you expected Netflix to provide this service.

Or what about Amazon?  They make product recommendations based on past purchases.  Is this creepy?  Again, most appreciate this service to help make their shopping experience more efficient and enjoyable.

Now what about Personalized URLs?  One visits their Personalized URL to see a webpage that is personalized them.  Is this creepy?  Now this is not as easy of an answer as with Netflix and Amazon.  There is a potential to be creepy, and it is important to realize this potential and take the steps necessary to prevent it.

No matter the medium of personalization, it always comes down to expectations.  Do people expect your website, application, or advertisement to be personalized?  If people dont’t expect personalization, and your provide them with a personalized message, then your creepy!  So going back to the question on Personalized URLs, do people expect the webpage to be personalized?  If the expectation is there, then Personalized URLs would not be considered creepy.  Lets dissect the Personalized URL campaign a little further to come to a logical conclusion.

  1. The first step of a Personalized URL campaign typically starts with an email or direct mail piece.  In either case, the recipient expects the piece to be personalized to them.  It is not unusual to receive an email or letter addressed to you.  So far we are meeting expectations, and are not creepy.
  2. The second step is to provide the recipient of the email or direct mail with a Personalized URL to learn more.  In most cases the copy is something like:  Hi Joe, to learn more about our service, I have created a website just for you at
    So now we have upped the level of personalization a little by putting their name into the URL.  Still, the URL is part of the already personalized email or direct mail piece, so we still have not violated expectations.
  3. Finally the recipient visits their Personalized URL and is provided with a website that is personalized to them.  When we originally introduced the recipient to the Personalized URL, we told them that the website was going to be personalized to them, so the expectations have already been set.  So far, not creepy.  But what if we personalize the site with information they don’t know how we got from them – Like their shoe size, or the amount of their mortgage,  or their child’s name.  This has the potential of being creepy.

The key to personalization is that the user understands where you’re getting their information from.  Let’s take the child’s name example mentioned before as having the potential for being creepy.  Let’s say that yesterday you visited a new childcare company to receive some inquire about their services.  During your visit your filled out a form with your child’s information.  The next day you receive an email from the childcare company with a Personalized URL.  You visit the Personalized URL, to find a personalized website that says “Hi Sally, we would like to invite you and Jimmy to our story time. We’ll have juice and cookies…”  In this case we personalized the website with the Child’s name –  mom understood where the information came from, and it was expected.  This would be a completely different story if mom was browsing children’s clothing online and was greeted with an ad that said, “Hi Sally, why don’t you purchase this shirt for Jimmy.”  Sally had no idea how this clothing company got Jimmy’s name, and this is creepy!

Zappos Personalized AdBefore launching your next personalized campaign, just ask yourself if the recipients are going to expect the level of personalization that you are engaging them with.  If there is any potential at all for surprise, if would be a good idea to be upfront with how the data was used, and what is happening behind the scenes to display the data.  Zappos does this well by displaying “Why am I seeing these ads?” under their re-targeted banners.

The truth is that personalization is going to continue to to make larger and large waves in the marketing world.  Providing marketing that is actually relevant and personalized is more efficient for everybody involved.  If you let fear keep you on the sidelines, you will get left behind.

As Hugo Liu of Hunch says – “Personalize is important because life is to short to see a generic website.”

Other helpful resources on personalization:

  • SXSW Panel: How to Personalize Without Being Creepy
  • How to Personalize Without Being Creepy
  • How not to be creepy when it comes to personalized web banners
  • How Companies Learn Your Secrets
  • Forget Evil, Don’t Be Creepy