This week, we examine how personalisation can easily go too far and how to avoid it.

A personal nightmare

When personalisation feels like it's peering too far into your data – and your life.

Chelsea Abbott



4 minute read

I was introduced to just how effectively our data can be used while I was shopping for makeup for my cousin’s birthday. Overwhelmed by the selection in store, a lovely assistant saw me floundering and saved me from my bewilderment. “No problem at all, do you know her name and postcode?” she asked. Within seconds, she had looked up my cousin’s customer ID and, based on her spending habits, recommended three different options for a gift.

My cousin loved her present, of course, and she has every birthday since. I can’t help but marvel at the fact that I’m using her personal data to buy her spot-on gifts that she’ll actually use. Not to mention that for me, it makes gift shopping almost effortless.

In short
  • Most customers expect brands to use their data for personalisation.
  • Personalisation can make an experience more tailored, but it can also leave us feeling unsettled when it becomes too invasive.
  • Brands need to consider how personalisation impacts customers and be transparent about data collection to maintain trust.
We love personalisation, when done right

Today, we expect brands to personalise our interactions to some degree. Armed with our purchase history, interests and browsing history, they can provide relevant suggestions and tailor our customer experience, ultimately making our lives easier. We’re 80% more likely to buy from a brand when the experience is personalised1 and 91% more likely to do business with brands that remember, recognise, and provide us with relevant recommendations2. We want to be served up that new Netflix show based on our previous watches or discover songs through our recommended Spotify algorithm. Plus, it makes our life easier when apps save our shopping history to create a more customised experience for future purchases.

Crossing the line

Every user has their own line between helpful and creepy when it comes to personalisation. However, when a customer feels a brand has crossed into ‘creepy territory’, it’s already too late. 22% of customers will leave for another brand because of a disturbing experience, and one in five of us will share our experience with a friend3. 2018’s Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal shone a light on the unethical gathering, sale, and use of personal data. A huge amount of trust was lost, making it harder for marketers everywhere to rebuild that trust with customers4.

While consumers expect their data will be used by brands for personalisation, when brands misuse information they shouldn’t have access to, we’re left feeling uncomfortable – or even violated. Here are some examples.

“When brands misuse information they shouldn’t have access to, we’re left feeling uncomfortable – or even violated."

Stop stalking me

One of the most common instances of data collection that leaves users feeling tricked and disturbed is when data is being gathered without their knowledge. Unbeknownst to many users, Google’s Location History records your geo data and tracks your every movement through your smartphone – even when the app isn’t open. The idea behind this feature was that Google could provide users with better services if it knows where they’ve been. Upon discovering that Google has detailed maps of their daily movements, the feeling of invasion leads most users to not only turn off the feature, but lose trust in the company, too.

Simple communication could avoid this feeling of invasion altogether. Now, users bargain with their data – it’s proven that if the benefit is big enough, they’re willing to hand it over in exchange for better service. What takes this interaction from creepy to a quid-pro-quo? Users understand how their data will be used and make a conscious decision to share it, putting the power in their hands.

Bye bye baby

Using customer data without considering why can get brands into trouble, too. In 2019, an American company known for selling mother and baby products received backlash over their marketing campaign.5 Women were sent postcard-style advertisements, congratulating them on their pregnancy — even if they weren’t pregnant. By only using information about their gender, this campaign was predicated on assumptions about pregnancy without considering the circumstances of their customers. Customers criticised the campaign for being “really intrusive” and “assuming highly sensitive personal information” about them in an inappropriate manner5.

Without considering the impact on customers – especially on such a personal and sometimes sensitive topic – clumsy attempts at personalisation can only make customers feel less understood. An effective personalised message goes beyond objective fact; it understands the subjective significance of those facts, and why they matter in the recipient’s world.

First name fatigue

Customers aren’t just finding bad examples of personalisation creepy. It can also put them off engaging altogether, simply because it can come across as tokenistic and insincere. Subject lines that use ‘Firstname’ aren’t going to have an impact on their own; when the only form of personalisation is a name, it still seems like the default6. This proves once again that personalisation only works when it showcases a more substantive understanding of the recipient7.

Considerate personalisation

With the right intention and execution, consumers love it when brands personalise an experience to engage us or offer more value. However, that feeling fades quickly when we feel our data has been wrongly collected, misused, or just used thoughtlessly. To ensure your personalisation falls in the right category, think about whether it positively impacts your customers. And when it comes to transparency, make an effort to share how you’ve obtained the customer data you’re using – it can go a long way in establishing trust.

on the price of dishonesty
You’d think that the Cambridge Analytica scandal would be a warning for brands, but last week it was announced that Google would be fined $60 million for breaking consumer laws by misleading people into believing their location data wasn’t being collected if Location History was off, which was found to be false.

Written by Chelsea Abbott, editing by Abby Clark, 52 Words by Adelaide Anderson, key visual by Patrick Brennan, page built by Alice Guo & Laura Murphy.
CX Lavender acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.