Connecting customers to relevant experiences is proving to be extremely powerful, enabling brands to leverage their rich data intelligence to deliver significant incremental gains in sales, engagement & service. As organisations take their second, third and further steps in personalised experience they increasingly ask challenging questions, interrogating and understanding what personalisation should actually ‘be’ for them. These questions come thick and fast as stakeholders across the business recognise that marketing, data and technology can now execute targeted and tailored 1-1 experiences and race to exploit these new capabilities.

Defining the role of personalisation in the relationship between an organisation and its customers is highly subjective, there should be no blanket answer or even industry vertical generalisations. Brands are diverse in how they position themselves as friends and/or servants to their customers; some relationships are better kept transactional and efficient whilst others will benefit from nuance and exploration. Further, the role and responsibility of certain organisations in using customer data to differentiate experience varies widely from highly commercial businesses to media & news outlets to public bodies and government.

Back in October last year Netflix was singled out for comment and consideration on apparent profiling of its customers and potential miss-use in the personalisation of its content. Whilst every organisation needs to have its own interpretation of personalisation I think this particular execution highlights an important boundary for many organisations to recognise. Fundamentally changing how a product is described to individual customers may well cross a line which many customers would find disquieting.

The screenshots in the title image of this article were taken from mine (left) and my sister’s(right) phones whilst within the Netflix app. In all four of these cases I am delivered imagery featuring women whilst she is shown that featuring men. In several cases and in particular for the series ‘You’, there is a choice to use a non-core character to represent the content, seemingly in the pursuit of triggering my interest regardless of a genuine association with the series.

Two aspects of this practice are fundamentally concerning and act as excellent navigational waypoints for other organisations looking establish what personalisation should and should not be for them and their customers.

Firstly, unless your product is a fully customised service then the descriptions of it should hold true to its actual contents. In order to deliver on this standard I suggest that descriptions, words and imagery should remain representative in all iterations. Offering tailored descriptions, perhaps based on a customer’s individual interests may be wholly acceptable however the product must actually deliver on the promise. The product is and is not certain things and personalisation should not be used to attempt to change that. Interestingly this is a good and often referenced rule for marketing in general, the product is a static entity and it is the audience and positioning that can be flexed but only within the bounds of reason and ethics.

Perhaps the most powerful guidance in this aspect of personalisation is that humans seldom often like being told that they fit into a box or profile. Customer intelligence may offer intriguing insight and tells into an individual’s tastes and interests but the use of it to tailor and alter the version of the world that they see is dangerous. We should not seek to determine what a customer should like and want, to do that misses the point of dialog and relationships. Personalisation is best used to help a customer explore and discover more of your brand and products, further enabling them to engage with you. Any suggestion that an organisation can dictate how you see the world will easily be interpreted as discriminatory and risks losing the respect, and most importantly, trust of the customer.

Having a clear perspective on what personalisation should and should not be for an organisation is key in building a credible and successful programme. The future is data-driven but how we chose to live up to our brand and ethical values will define our success.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject and any examples of positive or otherwise personalised experiences.