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Targeted Marketing: Helpful or Creepy?

April 2, 2015


Barry Schaeffer, a consultant with Content Life-cycle Consulting, reminds us that targeted marketing was not born in the digital age, but originated in the age of print. “In times past,” he writes, “you targeted your marketing and sales by placing your name (ads, posters, Burma Shave road signs … whatever) where you thought your prospective customers might show up — fishing ads in the sports section, theater listings in the entertainment section, luxury car ads in coffee table magazines, and so on. Sounds crude but it worked if you were careful, and it saved money by allowing you to place — and pay for — your message only where it was more likely to be effective.”[1] Schaeffer notes, however, “Marketing is fast becoming digital.” Digital marketing is less crude and more effective than the targeted marketing that preceded it.


Even though digital targeted marketing is more refined than past efforts, there is a fine line between being helpful and being creepy. Those of you old enough to remember when Burma Shave signs could be found along many of America’s roadways (from 1927 to 1963), you might recall that they were greeted with anticipation by bored passengers who couldn’t wait to get to the punchline. Below is a classic 1938 version of the famous signs. [To see them all click on this link].




Burma Shave was targeting a large group — men — but its roadside signs appealed to both genders and people of all ages. I daresay that consumers don’t always look forward to today’s digital ads with the same anticipation that weary travelers once greeted Burma Shave signs. In fact, a survey conducted last year by Razorfish Global Research concluded, “Three quarters of mobile users believe their privacy is invaded by targeted advertising.”[2] John Timmerman (@TDjtimmerman), a marketing executive with Teradata, writes, “There’s a fine line between effective, personalized marketing and an eerie feeling that ‘big brother’ is watching.”[3] He continues:

“Unfortunately, being creepy is one of the most common perils of data-driven marketing. In an online environment, retailers can observe every single nuance of an individual’s shopping experience. On the one hand, there are obvious perks for doing so, including the fact that carefully tailored marketing experience can lead to cross-sell, upsell and retention opportunities. Personalization simply works — and in study after study, consumers say that they like it. But marketers need to be careful. Because when personalization goes too far, it stops being helpful and just gets, well … creepy.”

I’ve written about this challenge before [see “Targeted Marketing: Being a Helpful Friend not a Creepy Stranger”]; but, crossing the line will obviously remain an issue because the line between being helpful and being creepy is a thin one. Bryan Kramer (@bryankramer), President/CEO of PureMatter, asks the golden question, “How can your company use information about prospects to provide targeted advertising without making people uncomfortable?”[4] Kramer asserts, “Many consumers have expressed some discomfort with targeted ads. Major civic organizations have created petitions to stop Facebook from using browsing history to display targeted ads, and in a recent survey by Ipsos, nearly 70% of smartphone users in the United States say they are uneasy about having their activity tracked for advertising purposes.” That’s a problem. After all, on the face of it, targeted marketing creates a win-win situation. When manufacturers and retailers can keep their marketing costs down they can also price their merchandise lower. At the same time, consumers see fewer ads for products and services that hold no interest for them. Timmerman makes an important point in his article. He notes that humans have a pretty good sense for when a comment or question crosses the line from being helpful to inappropriate. He writes, “While it is certainly creepy when these types of situations happen in a brick-and-mortar setting, it’s far more common in the world of digital marketing.”


Kramer acknowledges that Timmerman makes a good point and he notes that using information that is both personal and intimate almost always creates an inappropriate situation. The problem, he points out, is that “there are plenty of companies that sell products aimed at the intimate areas of a person’s life.” For those companies, Kramer admits that any rule forbidding the use of personal and intimate information “might not be so hard and fast for them.” Nevertheless, he concludes, “If your marketing personalization is based around information that is both personal, meaning it involves an individual person, and intimate, meaning most people would feel hesitant about sharing the information in a professional setting, there’s a good chance that your marketing might be creepy!”


So what can companies do? Kramer recommends “focusing on information that most people are fine sharing with a company, especially one whose products or services they are interested in. Facts like how many children they have, what city or community they live in, or what they do for work are good examples, although privacy limits are always subjective. Don’t forget to also consider your target market: if your company’s services or products are aimed at millennials, for example, you’ll probably have more leeway on privacy than you would if your target customer demographic is baby boomers.” To learn more about why it’s important to know what generation you’re targeting, read my article entitled “Targeted Marketing: Understanding Generational Differences.” Kramer recommends that companies consider using cognitive computing technology to create targeted marketing ads because it “is an excellent example of the type of technology that most people consider to be brilliant and not creepy, even though it deals with plenty of personal information.” He points to IBM’s Watson, the most famous cognitive computing system and notes, “The supercomputer is a cognitive technology that is designed to learn dynamically based on its previous experiences, the way humans do. Its dynamic learning capability means Watson is perfect for taking personalized information and using it for the benefit of the user.” The Enterra® Cognitive Reasoning Platform™ (CRP) uses a different approach than Watson, but, as a cognitive computing system, it can provide all the benefits noted by Kramer.


Timmerman suggests three things that companies can do to keep themselves on the right side of the helpful/creepy line: 1) Put data architecture in place that supports customer insight; 2) Develop a governance infrastructure predicated upon awareness and restraint; and 3) Observe how your customers respond. Concerning his first suggestion he writes:

Put data architecture in place that supports customer insight — Do you have a history of every interaction you’ve had with every customer? If you don’t, you are missing out on incredibly useful information. If you don’t keep data history, you won’t know what’s been said to that customer before, or how they responded. This leads to repetitive marketing, annoying ads and your brand eventually becoming a nuisance instead of a desirable vendor. The solution is simple — store the data! And analyze your customer’s preferences so that you can target them properly and in a way that will make them respond positively.”

Schaeffer recommends a little caution when it comes to collecting and analyzing consumer data. He believes emerging tools and technology could outpace our understanding of how consumers will respond to them. If companies are not careful, he explains, they could be accused of “electronic voyeurism.” Concerning his suggestion, Timmerman writes:

Develop a governance infrastructure predicated upon awareness and restraint — Do you have a way to manage communication frequency across all customer interaction channels? It is important to take note of not only which channel you are using to target an individual, but also how often. If not, your messaging may become a burden. Therefore, set up a system of checks and balances. Put in place an intuitive governance infrastructure that tracks this frequency, and depending upon the awareness and interest level of the individual, the infrastructure is capable of filtering out unwarranted level communications.”

Timmerman’s correct. Being annoying can be just as bad as being creepy. Concerning his final suggestion, Timmerman writes:

Observe how your customers respond — If you’re really listening, your customers will tell you exactly how your organization’s marketing is performing. The trick is having a tool to help consolidate online insight with offline interactions. Without this functionality, you run the risk of seeing only half of the picture. In general, customers are aware that companies are tracking their behaviors — and are okay with that reality when it improves their shopping experience. Still, they don’t want to be reminded of it every time they open their browser.”

Timmerman believes that by following his suggestions companies can stay “between the lines of helpful and intuitive — without over stepping into the creep zone.” Kramer concludes, “Sorting out what’s creepy and what’s just excellent personalized marketing isn’t always easy. … If you really want to learn how to reach your target audience with marketing that they will appreciate, you’ve got to focus less on marketing techniques and more on connecting with people.”


[1] Barry Schaeffer, “Signs Along the Road to Digital Marketing,” CMS Wire, 24 June 2014.
[2] Razorfish Global Research, “New Research Says 77% of Mobile Users see Targeted Ads as Invasion of Privacy,” Go-mash, 1 July 2014.
[3] John Timmerman, “The Line Between Creep and Effective Marketing,” CMS Wire, 1 October 2014.
[4] Bryan Kramer, “Creepy vs. Brilliant: How Personalized Should Your Marketing Be?Business 2 Community (B2C), 9 March 2015.

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