“Great news. You have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy the revolutionary new bath towel from Cotton Stuff For Your House Dot Com. This towel will dry your body after a shower and it’s completely reusable. What’s more we are offering you a special six for the price of half dozen promotion that includes shipping and handling at our regularly low rates.”
In other words, the housewares company wants to sell me towel. Fair enough. That’s what such companies do. I might even want some new towels. But it’s not great news. It’s not a special opportunity. And I feel jobbed every time I read lies like these.
What frustrates me the most is the tone deafness of the approach. I hate newsletters and communications that are phrased to suggest that I am being done a great favor by being the subject of their marketing. Lucky me. You are giving me the chance to spend my money on your products. Stop the noise. Unsubscribe. I hate it. And worst of all it’s transparent. That tone is exactly the opposite of the way I feel. I am doing you the favor of actually engaging with content that is designed to help you sell more. Treat me with the love, respect and kid gloves that favor givers like me deserve. Then I might even buy your magical reusable towel or at least not hate you for trying to sell it to me.
Whether it’s on a bus or a subway, at a junior high school dance or after several drinks at the office Christmas party, we’ve all had that sinking feeling when someone we like (but don’t really like) gets too close. It’s not a grope or something slap-worthy, but it’s still very uncomfortable. The target of the unwanted intimacy has to put up a stop sign and both parties face a painful moment. Putting the smiley facade back on the relationship is hard and often just not worth it.
Transpose that to marketing and you have the line between personalized and creepy. We all love to discuss and learn more about the things that interest us, whether it’s comparing the quality of local elementary schools, the relative merits of various fancy vodkas, or which grocery stores offer the best selection and value.
Imagine that you are looking for a new dress for the upcoming office holiday party and want something stylish but not too sexy (see above). Messages from clothing companies featuring images of those kind of dresses would be an efficient way to learn more about what’s available and reinforce your relationship with the brands that sent them. A message from one of those brands highlighting your recent six-pound weight gain and proposing a larger size as a way to compensate for your over-indulgent vacation might be well-intentioned but are going to strike most consumers as creepy. And a creeped-out consumer, like a creeped-out co-worker at the office party, flees. But unlike colleagues who are likely to bump into each other at the break room coffee machine the next day, the uncomfortable consumer has no reason to ever engage with the offending brand again. And that consumer is as likely as not to tell her friends about that brand interaction.
At the moment, I have no better definition of creepy, of the line between perceptive personalization and intrusive stalking, than to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition of hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
Consumer attitudes toward data privacy, personalization and convenience are changing rapidly and we will be using this blog to explore those issues more. One thing seems clear though, too close is still too close. And the consequences for marketers of leaning in too far remain severe.