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When Personalization Becomes Creepy

Not in her wildest dreams did Danielle imagine she would have such a conversation. Her husband got a call from his colleague who said he received an audio recording of a private conversation from Danielle and her husband’s own home.

Danielle was well aware that their Amazon Echo devices took orders by voice—but this was the final straw. Out went all the Echo devices, which they were otherwise happy with and used for everything from turning on the heat to turning off the lights.

The story is true. Danielle lives in Portland, Oregon and she told her story to CBS News five years ago.

Amazon said this snafu was the result of an "unlikely" series of events that led to the recording and subsequent sending of the audio file. Since then, Amazon has done everything in its power to regain the trust of Danielle and consumers as a whole.  But there is no doubt that this situation was too much for Danielle—it was creepy! It was creepy to such an extent that the positive customer experience she once had with Amazon disappeared.

Although Danielle’s story is a few years old, tales like this have left an impression on shoppers. Many have experienced an unsettling phenomenon where after discussing a certain product or topic with a friend they are exposed to ads about that same item later that day. It almost seems as if big tech is listening a little too closely in hopes of targeting us with the perfect ads and commercials.

When discussing personalization, we need to address the concept of creepiness. Any time you work with personalization, there is a risk that you will evoke the same feeling of creepiness Danielle felt.

Even a  well-intentioned attempt to personalize the customer experience using customers’ data can potentially creep buyers out. So, when you intend to create a relationship and convert buyers through personalization, there is a risk that the result will be the exact opposite. 

The question is: what creeps consumers out, and how do you avoid stepping over the line?

Keep reading to learn the answer to these questions as well as many other tactical tips surrounding effective personalization.

Customers Expect Personalization

Today, many consumers expect personalization. Perhaps this is why we sometimes feel personalization is happening—even when it isn’t. According to the  State of the Connected Customer from Salesforce, 66 percent of consumers expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations, and 52 percent expect all offers to be personalized.

McKinsey takes it a step further and claims that consumers are now at a point where they even demand personalization. According to their 2021 survey, 71 percent of consumers now expect companies to deliver personalized customer experiences, and 76 percent become frustrated when this doesn’t happen.

Even so, many consumers still find personalized content to be creepy—and that's a problem we must address.

When do Consumers Find Personalization Creepy?

Consumers find personalization creepy under three different circumstances.

First, consumers feel creeped out if they find themselves stalked by mindless repetition of the same advertisement which can feel like a hollow echo of their browsing experience. This is especially the case if consumers encounter retargeting ads on a different channel than they started on. And, shoppers may be even more annoyed if they feel that the advertiser should know that they are no longer in the market for this particular product.

An example of this is hotel advertisements. Many have likely experienced coming back from vacation but continue to receive ads for hotels from their destination weeks after their return from the locale. 

The second direct path to creepiness is using customer data or insights that the customer doesn't realize you have. Either the data comes from a third-party data source, consent was not clearly stated at the time of collection, or the customer is simply unaware that you are collecting this type of data.

For most customers, it will come as no surprise if they receive an email following up on a specific online purchase. Your customer knows that you have this data and as such it can be used very explicitly. You can reference the purchased products ( videos of the products), without seeming creepy.

However, if the customer is not aware that your company has collected data and it is used for explicit personalization, then many will find it too creepy. An example of this is tracking individual page visits on a website. This collection of data is quite common and occurs through either a server-side or a first-party browser cookie. For example, if a brand sends an email that encourages a customer to look at more products similar to the items they’ve already viewed, depending on the nature of the products, the email may be perceived as being too much.

On the other hand, some customers may not find the email to be too much at all. They may see it as helpful. It depends on the individual customer, as well as how your brand presents itself and how consumers perceive it.

And then there's the third example, which can give consumers a problematic sense of creepiness: bringing up topics that the customer will find too personal and inappropriate to discuss and share with your brand.

Think about the potential conversation you could have with a person you just met at a dinner party. You need to know and trust this person before you start discussing things like your relationship or a recent death. Use this same rule of thumb when creating messaging for customers.

It Can be Profitable to Personalize

With all of that said, it can be relevant and profitable for your business to personalize the customer experience based on highly personal information.

For instance, worker's unions have access to members' browsing data, which can indicate when a union member has been terminated.  Or, a pension company might be sitting with similar data indicating that a divorce is cooking. If your business manages to walk the line and subtly help people in such difficult situations, then you can create a unique form of customer loyalty.

So, when it’s relevant for your business to bring up similar themes in marketing, make sure that you not only have consent but also the emotional trust of your customer. And, remember that implicit personalization is your friend. Implicit personalization is when a brand presents a customer with articles, content, and functionality that they will find helpful. The key is making it appear like a coincidence when this particular content is displayed. It is the exact opposite of using a headline such as “Because you're probably going through a divorce, you might like…”

If, on the other hand, you can present the customer with a test, a quiz, or a survey, where they voluntarily indicate that yes, they are in the middle of a divorce then the cat is out of the bag, and you can address it explicitly.

Personalized vs. Personal

Central to the discussion of creepiness is whether something is personalized or personal. As a marketer, you must be careful not to personalize your communication more than your recipients are comfortable with. Most customers don't want an intimate relationship with brands – you're not their best friend. If your customers trust your brand, however, you can potentially combine personalization with personification. 

An example of this would be sending emails from a real person, even if the messages are automated. You can do this by having your emails appear as if they are coming from your CEO or another key member of your organization. Just make sure that the from address does not start with 'noreply' and that replies to emails actually go to the real person referenced.

If the content within the email is personalized and written in a friendly tone, the communication will feel more personal and can thus improve your results. Most people might know that these messages are not sent manually, especially if the email is branded. However, they still expect a real person to be behind the words, and they hold that person responsible for the content.

The Best Advice to Avoid Creepiness

It is easy to take personalization too far and thus appear creepy, or fall flat by personalizing a subject line, and then disappointing recipients with completely generic email content. 

The best advice to avoid creepiness is, therefore:

  1. Think about what content really helps the customer move forward. Is it more pictures of strollers or a link to an article about what to consider when buying one?
  2. Turn off cross-channel retargeting for customers for whom you have purchase data. Also, consider how long it makes sense to do retargeting without it becoming meaningless in a customer journey.
  3. Make sure you are transparent about what data is collected and used for personalization. Make it easy for the customer to revoke their consent for the use of their data.
  4. Apply implicit personalization when you address sensitive products or topics in personalized communications.
  5. Follow through on your personalization promise. This means avoiding personalizing some pieces while keeping others generic.  If the relationship and the personalized content are there, then it will create additional relevance.

With the above in mind, there is nothing preventing you from getting started with personalization as long as it fits your current business challenges and your company has the prerequisites to succeed with it.

- Rasmus Houlind, Author of “Hello $FirstName” and CXO at

Rasmus Houlind

Rasmus Houlind is a well-known writer, speaker, and consultant in the Nordics. After ten years of consulting within digital marketing and marketing automation, in 2015 he published his first marketing book (in Danish),” Hvis det handler om mig, så køber jeg!” (“If It’s About Me, I’ll Buy!”). In 2019 he followed up with the omnichannel marketing bestseller “Make It All About Me” from LID Publishing. Since then, he has evangelized omnichannel marketing and marketing automation from his position as Chief Experience Officer with the Nordic martech company Agillic. He has worked with organizations such as Red Cross, PureGym DK, Tivoli, Matas, Bolia, SPORTMASTER, Imerco, Varner-Gruppen, Andel Energi, and Telge Energi.

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