Targeted Marketing: When Does Cool Cross Over to Creepy?

Targeting. That’s a term of art in marketing. It’s also a term of art in marksmanship. That double-entendre should make you stop and think.

targetingWe can target customers more accurately if we have an intimate understanding of what makes them tick. Most marketing professionals now seek a degree of intimacy beyond the traditional norm in customer relationship management. Intimacy implies that you understand the customer’s mind almost as well as they do–or, at the very least, are trying to. Intimate engagement requires that you can essentially read their minds, treating each person as a unique individual with distinct backgrounds, histories, preferences, needs, quirks, and propensities.

Targeting is inherently personal, and anything that’s personal can hit touchy territory before you know it. If we’re respectful to customer sensitivities, we can fulfill their fondest wishes and improve their experiences within our digital and other channels. But if we’re tone-deaf to customer anxieties, we can easily transgress the line that separates cool from creepy. Having far too much insight into customers’ lives and heads enables us to invade their privacy, stalk their every activity with too-knowing promotions, and generally foster the impression that we are monitoring their every waking moment.

Are we on the verge of getting too much in our customers’ faces with target marketing? The now-classic example of this is the “big consumer brand knows you’re pregnant” story. This new cultural anxiety touchstone has been hurled at a company that has “face” in its name and another with “target” as its name.

No one has accused either firm of intentionally creeping out the women mentioned in the stories. What happened was that these companies’ deep engagement in customers’ lives, powered by big data and advanced analytics, created unintended consequences that some found personally embarrassing.

Big data is making these creepy consequences more likely, due simply to the fact that these database hold more customer data and can power more sophisticated customer analytics. We might call this new paradigm the “720-degree customer view.”

What this involves is compiling a more comprehensive–some might say “intrusive”–portrait of your customers. In addition to the traditional 360-degree picture of the customer’s external “journey” through the world (i.e., their buying, consuming, influencing, churning, and other observable behaviors), you add an extra 360 degrees of internal “journey” (i.e, their experiences, propensities, sentiments, attitudes, etc.) culled from behavioral data sources and/or inferred through sophisticated analytics.

The 720-degree view will get deeper and deeper as customers, to varying degrees, allow you to collect and correlate ambient, geospatial, and behavioral data from their smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets. At some point you may have so much information on them that you run the risk of annoying them 24×7 with overkill targeting.

So how do we engage with customers and proactively fulfill each one’s unique expectations without invading their privacy or giving the impression that we are overcontrolling know-it-alls?

For starters, you should begin to map out journeys that incorporate customer sensitivities–i.e, the “third rails” you dare not touch–while also identifying what rocks their various worlds. As IBM VP Deepak Advani stated at the recent Information on Demand 2012, the new order of marketing is shifting “from getting people to buy to ensuring people get the experience they expect.” Most women, for example, do not expect that some big impersonal corporation will inform the world that they are in a family way.

Your 720-degree view should incorporate each customer’s particular blend of sensitivities. You can safely assume that some sensitivities (e.g, sexual, religious, dietary, etc.) come with particular demographic profiles. You should provide the means for each customer to specify other sensitivities that are more idiosyncratic. You might also tune your listening programs to customers’ social-media communications, thereby providing another source of intelligence on their pet peeves. And you definitely must enter their complaints and other feedback on your channels’ past behavior in exquisite detail, lest you commit the same faux pas twice.

In addition, your next-best-action business logic should drive the scripting that shapes how your agents, sales people, and other human touchpoints interact with customers. These scripts should drive how customer sensitivities are identified and recorded, while also helping steer your channels away from taboo topics. Any actions that your human touchpoints take to tailor the engagement to each customer’s situation, and any fresh sensitivities that they uncover, should be automatically logged and used as inputs into future interaction scenarios.

Targeting is such a brutal term. It’s cool to show your customers that you respect them. You show them that when you engage with them like normal human beings and continue to refrain from offensive, intrusive, and insensitive marketing activities.

But it’s creepy to merely target customers, treating them only as a means to your business ends, as if you were a corporate Elmer Fudd wielding a big-data shotgun.

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