Mass Personalization: Today’s Marketing Oxymoron

Mass Personalization: Today’s Marketing Oxymoron

Let’s hit the masses in a personalized (non-generic) way. Sound simple? Maybe. If we focus on the small details and keep an eye on the ROI.

After all, personalized service from your local corner store or coffee hangout is often what keeps you coming back. Who doesn’t want a barista who doles out personalized foam art?

Make mine with Grumpy Cat as Darth Vader …

What is Personalization?

I’ve been using a completely out of the way drugstore to fill my prescriptions for years because of the personalized service I get from a pharmacist who knows my name, my husband’s name and cares enough to pay attention to my preferences – and allergies. He even recognizes my voice when I phone in my orders.

It’s this kind of personal touch that has long separated the “mom and pop shop” from the big box generic, one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter retailer. It informs much of the marketing, colours our perception, and very often reinforces our loyalty even over the price of the goods and convenience.

“They know me so I want to continue to support them – like an old friend.”

But mass personalization on an epic, social media, metropolis-sized scale seems almost unwieldy and insurmountable. Not to mention that even the term “mass” brings forth a torrent of negative images – like mass flyer mailouts, mass spamming, mass production, etc. – that seem completely at odds with the idea of “personalization”.

Hence, the oxymoron.

Bad Examples

It’s certainly true that with algorithms and all kinds of “big data” marketers can target people based on preferences, habits, likes, etc. I once wrote a blog post that discussed Anne Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird” (an excellent read, by the way) only to find my Facebook feed littered with sponsored ads about birds, Amazon books I might be interested in, and the book itself. That’s the kind of personalization that can sometimes feel less personal and more like stalking. While it is relevant to me, I think it’s important to consider that I don’t go to Facebook to shop specifically.

In fact, in an excellent infographic titled “Mass Marketing vs. Personalization” Tech Panda shows that 75% of consumers would prefer that retailers used personal information to improve their shopping experience. This is very different than being targeted– even though most of us realize we are being targeted and have learned to live with it.

Accepting the inevitable tracking is a definite paradigm shift from the early days of the Internet when cookies scared most of us (once we figured out they weren’t actual baked goods) and we immediately harkened back to the days of Steve Jobs likening IBM to big brother and 1984. But in this brave new digital world, many of us better accept being tracked as long as it is meaningful to our online user experience.

Great Examples

That same Facebook experience of mine could be very different if it happened at an online retailer that then provided me with suggestions based on my order history and preferences. A good example of doing this well is Netflix. You may not agree with every suggestion, but instant recommendations are provided the moment you are done binge watching your latest obsession. It’s how I discovered Bill Burr after watching Louis C.K. That was definitely worth the click.

Another good example of a mass personalization home run is the personalized music service Pandora, which provides recommendations based on a listener’s music tastes and song feedback in order to tailor a completely personalized listening experience. Three recent fashion startups: MyOwnShirts, Artful Gentleman and Appalatch offer personalization in the form of choice and customization of style, color, fabrics, etc.

Mass personalization can range from being welcomed back by name to a site, to being offered information and recommendations based on your personal information and collected data, to providing your customers with product options. spoke to how innovative one of the exibitors at the 3rd annual Big Boulder Conference was in using mass personalization. By providing attendees the ability to customize conventional tradeshow swag such as Sigg water bottles using laser engraving, conference-goers began visiting this vendor to get everything laser engraved: their MacBooks, iPads, iPhones, everything! The personalization was a huge hit and the word of mouth this engraver received was priceless and extended well beyond the event.

Grumpy cat engravings were very popular at this event, supposedly, and this just leads me to believe that Grumpy Cat Vader is coming to my MacBook very soon.

It’s these kinds of small details that that can give a personalized feel to your customers. They can be done on a mass scale without feeling overdone. Think of the feelings you get from your favorite coffee shop or corner store. Then think of a big box or mass market coffee chain. Not the same - at all.

What we can learn from the great examples:

1. Offer just enough choice. Customers like choice and options and these can range from color options to actual product features. However, too many features or choices can lead to confusion. There are numerous studies proving that too many choices can stall customers making them actually buy less. There’s an excellent post from about how too much choice can be to much of a good thing.

2. Personalization as a funnel  To drive up the conversion rate, you can strive to target content to match the individual customer’s preferences thereby increasing the chance of clicks and eventual purchases.

In this way, you are slowly limiting choices and pushing clients towards a purchase based on what they already like. Just don’t limit the choices so far that you completely close off other sales opportunities.

3. Consider your bottom line. Is it worthwhile financially to offer personalization? If a customer looks at an item at your online store but doesn’t buy it, a few days later you could send him or her a newsletter featuring an offer on that exact item.

Your customer might think of this as a coincidence. But it wasn’t. He was probably the only recipient of the “newsletter” that day and this type of targeted personalization can take time, resources and even programming dollars you may not have at startup.

4. Pay attention to the small details of your customer’s experience. Like the laser engraving example, a small feature can go a long way to giving that personalized feel.

Have a great personalization story? Why not share it with us? After all, I promise this post was written just for you. Leave me a comment or reach out to me on twitter @loremipsum42.

What do you think?

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