Contributed by Jimmy Storrier, Managing Director of JBA


In this article Jimmy Storrier, Managing Director of the JBA office in Singapore, shares his experience and view on personal marketing and specifically on cases where personal marketing got creepy. In a second part of this article, which we will publish in a week from now, he will share 5 things to respect when you want to avoid that personal marketing becomes creepy.


Jimmy Storrier:

I remember it well enough, the first time I realised marketing was starting to get creepy. It was the result of one of those wild late night travel searches after a half bottle of wine. That search you do because you think booking a spontaneous 10 day vacation after a hard day at work is a good idea.

45 minutes later I’d decided on the Maldives, but as it came time to pay up, my better sense kicked in with the usual buying hesitancy as the effect of the wine wore off. This little escapist jaunt was to be a non-trivial investment. At the very least my wife would need some form of consultation. There was also work to do, and holidays from work require more co-ordination than a late night tipple and web search. This would require more time.

The Maldives decided otherwise. For the next 14 days, the picturesque resort I had last opened on Expedia haunted me everywhere I went on the Internet, and I do mean everywhere. Reading the news in the morning on a website based in Australia: the resort announced its presence by sliding slowly into my field of vision on a banner from the right of my screen. Checking the results of the Hong Kong Sevens in the afternoon: a very small, almost completely blue square of what I assume was the resort pool appeared at the top of my mobile screen, innocently displaying its previously quoted nightly rate as a sobering reminder of how ridiculously out of my spontaneous holiday budget it was. Checking in on some photos of a high school friend’s new baby on Facebook: my news feed prominently featured a smiling host from that very same Maldives resort. The Maldives became a regretful part of my daily web experience because I really wanted to go, but I really couldn’t. Jilted, the Maldives eventually must have forgotten about me and stopped following me around like a lost puppy, saving me from having to say “it’s not you, it’s me” by not clicking.


Personalised marketing executed badly is creepy
Re-marketing on the scale of my Maldives experience is an example of personalisation gone creepy. Re-targeting and re-marketing were chalked up on the ever increasing list of online ROI silver bullets and anyone with anything to sell online hasn’t looked back since then, but consumers are taking notice. Speak to anyone you know and they’ll have a similar story to mine, which usually isn’t delivered in a tone that is in any way glowing of the retailer or brand using re-marketing as a tactic. Apart from the fact that Internet users are tuning display advertising out altogether, the idea that a product you’ve viewed once on a website somewhere should follow you around until you tire of it or buy it is just bad marketing.

Imagine a world where bricks and mortar retailers hired a team of meticulous automatons in their stores to anonymously peek out from behind a curtain at browsing shoppers who briefly pick up say, a shoe, for closer inspection before putting it back down. At that point, they move into action and follow that shopper around in their daily life holding the barely glanced at shoe just inside their field of vision for the next two weeks: at home, at work, before they go to bed. I can’t imagine anyone thinking that the shoe they briefly glanced at in a store yesterday has a place being slowly pushed towards them on the table at dinner the next evening, price tag displayed prominently and adorned with a starburst.


If retailers don’t do it in real life, why do they do it online?
Poorly executed online re-marketing is the result of marketers getting excited about the capability of advancing technology to increase sales before thinking through a complete customer experience. The naïve sales driven online marketer will likely complain at this point that if transactional margin from re-marketing exceeds the re-marketing ad spend then the holy grail of ROI positivity has been reached, be damned the consequences. The same could be said for our bricks and mortar shoe retailer example, yet I never see retailers bringing up a business case for having an annoying product display representative desperately tail prospective customers like a Bali street hawker.

The problem here isn’t re-marketing, or its parent, personalisation; it’s how personal data and information is used.


Personalised marketing is like high school dating
Remember that kid at school who had developed a healthy, but perpetually distant crush on a classmate? The kid who peered at the target of their affection from a distance, without ever introducing themselves? Every school had that one kid. In the days before big data, they’d impressively collect an arsenal of behavioural data about the person they’d developed an infatuation for. They’d know when and where they ate lunch (on the blue benches at 12:15pm), and what they ate for lunch (peanut butter and jelly sandwich), how they arrived at school (bus), and how they got home (walked with best friend). After a suitable data collection period, they’d suddenly appear unannounced to their target who barely knows they exist and insert themselves tactlessly into a conversation using data they’d collected to completely defeat the purpose of their introduction: “Here’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in paper, because I’ve been watching you and noticed when you got off the bus this morning you forgot your lunch. Want to go on a date?”

Don’t be that creepy kid!

Marketers instead want to be the self-assured, confident kid that introduced themselves into the conversation over time, building awareness and familiarity. The kid that added value through wit, charm or interesting and relevant facts. The kid that acquired information about the object of their affection in small bite sized pieces through relevant questioning (or what we these days call progressive profiling). This was the kid that subtly determined if there was any buying signals from their classmate by asking them for a dance in the school hall and buying them a bookmark at the school fair before asking them on a date. This was the kid that was much more successful at getting a date than his creepy counterpart.


A retailer creeps out the father of a 16 year old girl
Creepiness came to life for most of us in the marketing world when retailer Target announced to a subsequently irate father via a letter and coupon pack, that his 16 year old daughter was pregnant. The direct mailer was addressed to her with the title “Congratulations on your first child!”. The daughter hadn’t yet had a chance to tell her father of her news herself.

Although the communication and circumstances were embarrassing, the fact that Target knew a 16 year old girl was pregnant and her father didn’t was the work of a rather incredible pregnancy prediction model developed by Andrew Pole, a statistician working at Target at the time.

As reported in the New York Times:


From Personal to Creepy


Unfortunately, Pole’s pregnancy prediction model came with one small but significant flaw: it didn’t consider that someone under the age of 18 and living at home may be a sensitive target for pregnancy communications, and that’s what made it creepy. The modelling and data that fed the model itself was by its very nature completely neutral, but the way the data and model was used to interact with a real person was not. However, these are the small and significant flaws that marketers need to account for by demonstrating some empathy for customers and their experience before loading up the big, bright shiny new marketing tactics shotgun.

Target came up with a relatively simple fix to their pregnancy prediction model communications: they’ve stopped telling people they know of their pregnancy and now mix pregnancy related coupons in with coupons for non-pregnancy related products in their conveniently well timed and ambiguous direct mailer. They still know if you’re pregnant, they just don’t signal that they know anymore.

In next week’s article I’ll share with you 5 things I think you should respect when you want to avoid personalised marketing becoming creepy.

Jimmy Storrier is the Managing Director of JBA, a strategic marketing and data science agency based in Australia and Singapore.

The author is a 3rd party contributor to AdAsia and this article represents his views.


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One thought on “When Marketing Crosses the Line from Personal to Creepy, Part 1

  1. I particularly like the remarketing offline comparison of a person following you around in real life with an offer. The visual made me laugh out loud in the office!

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