The Line Between Cool and Creepy: How Much Personalization is Too Much?

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Smart marketers now know where prospective customers are, where they may be going next, and what they’re buying (and thinking of buying). 

Re-marketing and geo-targeted messaging have become old news. The challenge for brands is now figuring out how hyper-targeted is too targeted for consumers prone to be put off by a perceived invasion of privacy.

With its new study, the Personalization Pulse Check, Accenture Interactive aims to help brands understand the border between cool and creepy advertising, providing insights into what the customer thinks of personalization tactics in marketing campaigns. A series of humorous videos accompanies the report’s findings, staging real-life examples of instances in which hyperlocal targeting could cross the line were store representatives to say things to customers that some brands’ digital messaging already does (e.g., let me find you an item that will be suitable for your upcoming vacation).

As Jeriad Zoghby, head of personalization for Accenture Interactive, puts it, “If you wouldn’t do it in the real world, don’t do it in the digital world.” The Pulse Check (a survey of 8,000 global consumers) revealed that 83% of consumers are willing to share their data to enable a personalized experience “as long as businesses are transparent about how they are going to use it and customers have control over it.”

Although GDPR will certainly help brands get a clearer sense of boundaries pertaining to data collection and deployment, personalization tactics will continue to be determined by marketing departments and agencies, and without paying close attention to customer preferences, marketers risk crossing the line. For example, almost half (41%) of consumers identify text messaging as they walk by a physical store as “creepy.” Also defined as creepy are ads on social media sites triggered by website browsing.

What falls into the “cool” category? Personalization that relates to service is welcomed by many consumers. Apology e-mails and messaging when a consumer has experienced poor service can also build a brand’s reputation.

Consumer control over personalization also emerges as a major theme in the study. Almost three-quarters (74%) of consumers like the idea of a “living style profile” that they create and that evolves along with their own needs and tastes. In short, helping marketers curate the experiences they receive is important to most customers today.

“Businesses can meet this new expectation by creating ongoing, two-way digital dialogues that resemble conversations customers would have with a sales or service associate,” Zoghby says.

Zoghby believes many travel companies have started to “do it right,” staying on the better side of the creepy-cool personalization border. He sites Delta, Melia, and Carnival Cruises as brands that are putting the customer’s preferences first.

When aiming to craft personalized marketing strategies that please customers, brands should rely on data without getting too lost in the numbers and losing sight of common-sense good practices, the report’s findings indicate.

For brands, paying attention and listening to customer needs is critical to avoiding a place in the creepy space. Zoghby says, “Move away from treating people like a demographic or persona, and service them again.”

Nancy A. Shenker is the founder of theONswitch marketing ( and the author of four business books, including Embrace the Machine (, about AI, machine learning, and robotics. She speaks, writes, and consults on the integration of technology and humanity, as well as on content strategy: conventional and digital. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, she was formerly an executive at big global brands, including Citibank, MasterCard, and Reed Exhibitions.

Nancy A Shenker, senior editor with Street Fight, is a former big brand (Citibank, Mastercard, Reed Exhibitions) marketing strategist and leader. She has been featured in, the New York Times and Forbes.