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How to Make Your Personalized or Targeted Advertising Less Creepy

More and more people are creeped out by the level of personalization in marketing and advertising. Here's how to reach them without scaring them.

How to Make Your Personalized or Targeted Advertising Less Creepy

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear conversations around targeted advertising or digital personalization tinged with unease or concern.

Are social platforms listening to our conversations?

How do they know my name?

What even is this product from and why is it being advertised to me?

It’s not to say that the concerns aren’t legitimate. After all, the idea of massive corporations buying our data can be uncomfortable.

But the sentiment around targeted advertising doesn’t necessarily reflect how effective they are.

Do we think personalization and hyper-targeted advertising is creepy?


Also, though, we mostly notice when things aren’t functioning the way they should, like every time autocorrect thinks I mean “ducking.”

But if everything is going smoothly, what’s to notice at all?

This is why it’s more important than ever that advertisers do the heavy lifting of figuring out who their audience is with data and formalize these audiences with actual, documented buyer personas.

Only with a laser-focused understanding of your audience will you be able to use personalization and targeted advertising that doesn’t upset your potential customer.

Here are a few ways to make sure your personalization and advertising efforts are more effective than they are jarring.

1. Start With the Data You Have & Look at All of It

Too often, buyer or user personas aren’t a foundation or a starting point for brands.

Instead, I’ve seen too many brands (even very large organizations) who start their advertising efforts based on a barely-laced-together specter of a buyer, typically grounded in only one person’s vision of who the customer is.

For example, I’ve worked for very large tech organizations who decided that their buyer personas were two white men, each of them had the same stereotypical “techie” attributes, except one of them enjoyed video games and the other enjoyed flying first class.

These were global companies with clients around the world.

Needless to say, the data never bore that out.

In another example, I consulted with an agency that said they didn’t “need” buyer personas.

“There’s no need,” said one of the executive leaders. “I have an idea of the clients we’re looking for in my head.”

While one’s visions for their brand universe are well and good, such visions don’t translate into actionable personalizing or advertising strategies.

Even more importantly, they may be incredibly off-base.

Every brand has a wealth of their own data at their fingertips, which is the best place to start your search.

Ask some questions while digging through this:

  • Who are our visitors in general, their ages, genders, interests?
  • What about the people most engaged on our website, coming back for several sessions or looking at multiple pages, or staying for long periods?
  • Who’s bouncing?
  • Who’s buying?
  • How much are they buying?
  • How much are they spending and how often?

These numbers will start to bear out who your buyer is.

Don’t forget to also look at data like which channels they’re coming from or what their likelihood of conversion is.

The composition of your data will start to give you a much better idea of who cares about your content, and who converts.

Bonus Tip

Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines… it’s not always about high rates of engagement and conversion!

Recently, I discovered a new potential persona for a client that may have been overlooked because of their high bounce rate.

It turns out that bounce rate can mean a lot of things.

For instance, a demographic who is digital-native, searches smartly and doesn’t need to stay on a website very long to get the information they need.

2. Use Data Compilation or Personalization Tools to Do the Heavy Lifting

Tools don’t get you out of data analysis, but they can absolutely augment your findings.

Using the right tools can be a little bit like putting your personalization and advertising strategies on autopilot… but you have to have the right tools and invest the right time in their foundations and setup.

There are a ton of personalization tools out there to choose from including:

You can absolutely invest your way into better personalization or targeted advertising opportunities, but every tool is only as useful as the extent to which teams are using them.

Don’t be the team that uses something like Marketo as a glorified email marketing tool or Sitecore as a fancy word processor.

You have to actually get to know the tool or it can’t help you with your targeting or personalization.

Marketing automation platforms are incredible for putting out deeply personalized lead nurture campaigns.

But in order to maximize its effectiveness, you must sit down and spend time building out your lead scoring system and the triggers you’ll need to meet your audience’s needs.

A DXP like Sitecore is a tremendous and robust tool for personalizing your website each time a visitor arrives, based on:

  • Their entry point.
  • Return visits.
  • The content they’ve engaged.

But it works only if you’ve set up your engagement values and profiles.

Tools can take you to the next level of personalization by:

  • Automating processes that were previously human.
  • Reducing risk of error and streamlining your work.
  • Targeting effectively with triggers based on consumer actions.

But like any strategic work, it’s only as good as the foundation you set.

Bonus Tip

Tool setup is not a one-and-done situation.

Set aside time quarterly or annually to evaluate your setup and its effectiveness.

Designate opportunities for A/B testing to be sure your efforts are still driving results.

3. Build Nurturing Strategies & Pay Attention to Them

Do you have all your assets cataloged according to funnel section or journey phase?

Have you mapped out the journey users take on your website when they visit it?

These are critical items to building truly personalized nurturing strategies that convert, so start there.

If you’ve done this and you know what steps potential customers take at each phase of exposure to your brand and each time they interact with your website or advertising, then you’re ready to build nurturing campaigns.

Once you’ve established customer motivations, thoughts, feelings, and triggers that drive them to purchase, start setting these up (maybe even in your tools you’ve invested in!).

Maybe it’s:

  • A welcome email trigger that sends out when someone joins your list.
  • An abandoned cart trigger that sends out an email to someone reminding them to complete their purchase.
  • An email reminder about an upcoming webinar, but only to those who have opened the previous email invite, since that will signal that they had enough interest to click and learn more.

But you can’t just set them up.

You have to truly pay attention to them in order for them to be effective.

Remember that people rarely notice automation and personalization as a potential problem unless it’s wrong.

So that means you need to make sure that if your abandoned cart trigger is set up for 24 hours later, that it doesn’t send if they actually come back at that time and make the purchase.

Monitor triggers to be sure that you’re not retargeting customers who have bought an item that is commonly bought only once with more and more recommendations for that item.

(As Twitter user @justinshanes implies, do we really need a room full of humidifier collectibles?)

If they’ve opened the webinar email and your reminder is set to go out in a week, make sure that your data capture is set to catch that they actually did go sign up in the time between when they opened it and when the reminder is sent.

Don’t embarrass yourself by reminding someone to take an action they’ve already taken.

While a lot of folks think of automation as a slow-cooker sort of activity – set it and forget it – it really does need to be paid attention to so that you aren’t accidentally nurturing expired action paths or triggering the wrong suggestions for the user.

If you’re running a nurture campaign or have personalization triggers, designate time for you to regularly check on them and make sure they are functioning as intended.

4. If They’re Just Not That Into You, Walk Away

I’ve noticed something about marketers as the years have gone on: We are the worst at handling break-ups.

People who have never opened an email from us live on our lists forever.

We make people jump through hoops of fire to unsubscribe from our lists.

We collect their data and their data collects dust, as they move to different locations or change their email address or phone number.

Still, their original information sits on our database, bittersweet relics of a moment where they had so much promise to become a lead in our digital world.

I’m here to tell you: It’s time to let go.

Stop giving your attention to people who don’t want it.

Stop holding onto data that isn’t accurate or good for you anymore.

Stop letting lost causes live rent-free in your head and your database (where they often are costing you money as well).

If you really want to reignite an old flame and see if they reciprocate, definitely test out a win-back campaign to see if you can restore their original interest.

But if they don’t respond, it’s not helping you in any way to keep them on your lists.

“But what can it hurt?” you might think.

“They never open things anyway, they barely even notice we’re there.”

They do notice, believe me.

And they’re annoyed.

Even if they’ve passed into the plane of apathy, that is not a great place for your brand to live in their mind.

Additionally, it is costing you somewhere along the way to retain information for people who aren’t interested in your business.

Your department’s bottom line is being affected by holding on to data that the user would rather you forgot, whether you’re:

  • Paying for database fields or information line items.
  • Paying for email sends.
  • Or even just paying for the hassle of list uploads with data that hasn’t been cleaned in months.

Cleaning your data is critical to personalization and advertising success.

It means you are spending your best efforts on people who want to be with you on this journey.

You’re not sowing any kind of ill will among people who wish you would just leave them alone.

Get your team together and establish a decay rate:

  • How long are we going to hold on to a lead?
  • What kind of actions do they need to take in what frame of time in order for us to keep them in our system for nurturing?

Your sale cycle might be long, so your decay rate might be slow, but no matter what, you need to decide if Ted who said he was going to your webinar and then totally stood you up and stopped opening emails, responding to ads, even though you were like, using his first name and everything.

Is Ted still worth it?

Technically, good marketing should feel like a two-way street.

People like us enough to give us their information, we like them enough to respect it and give them what they want… and stop giving them anything when they want to forget our numbers.

Don’t be afraid of being broken up with. Learn to embrace the “no.”


Advertising and personalization efforts not only aren’t required to be creepy, they absolutely shouldn’t be.

We know that personalization is the future of marketing efforts in terms of effectiveness.

But in order to be the most effective (and continuing to have access to that level of personal data), we have to treat it responsibly.

Taking extra time to know your audience will help you contribute to your organization’s bottom line and contribute to the marketing ecosystem being more responsible overall.

These numbers will start to bear out who your buyer is.

Don’t forget to also look at data like which channels they’re coming from or what their likelihood of conversion is.

The composition of your data will start to give you a much better idea of who cares about your content and who converts.

More Resources:

Danielle Bilbruck Principal Strategic Consultant at BROAD Digital Consulting

Danielle is a seasoned sales-professional-turned-marketing-strategist specializing in holistic, integrative digital strategy. She has worked for companies in 14 different countries, ...

How to Make Your Personalized or Targeted Advertising Less Creepy

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