Throughout my career, I’ve had a front-row seat to witness the evolution of personalized marketing. I started my personalization journey in the world of print, which is traditionally thought of and used as a mass marketing medium. Advances across multiple domains made it possible to deliver more targeted, individualized print marketing. The quality of digital printing increased and costs decreased. New software enabled the creation of rules-based, data-driven print output at scale. And the availability and accessibility of customer data provided the fuel to deliver one-to-one print marketing, primarily via direct mail. These pieces were typically connected to personalized microsites, as well.

Of course, these capabilities were often deployed in pretty basic, often gimmicky ways — something that continues to vex many modern marketers in their personalization attempts. If you had a kid going to college in the mid-to-late 2000s, it’s likely that they received a direct mail piece from prospective universities with their first name written in the sand, drawn in the sky or superimposed on a vanity license plate. I should know; I was both the recipient and creator of some of these campaigns. It’s fun to see the first time, but the novelty wears out after the second, third or tenth one you get.

Similar approaches were adopted and continue to be used in email marketing. I still receive marketing emails that start with “Dear [FIRST_NAME]” where the variable field isn’t even working. That’s an automatic delete. Soon-to-be-released Gartner research reveals that it’s not enough for brands to demonstrate that they know who a customer is in their attempts at personalization. Truly effective personalization involves taking what a brand knows about a customer and using it to provide proactive help.

Here’s a great example: A digital leader at a European telco brand used a personalization engine to detect customers’ smartphone types to recommend relevant accessories on its mobile website. There are countless accessories available for smartphones from Apple and Samsung. But accessories for smartphones from Sony and Nokia are harder to come by. Taking the customer directly to the accessories that matched their device type drove conversions and increased satisfaction. The kicker? The telco didn’t even need any personally-identifiable information from the customer to deliver a pertinent experience that delivered results.

It’s an advancement we see modern personalization engines adopting in an effort to adapt to more stringent data privacy regulations like the GDPR: using environmental signals like device characteristics, weather conditions and on-site contextual data to help marketers deliver relevance in privacy-friendly ways. My colleague, Andrew Frank, detailed how marketers can take on this concept of personification in Gartner research from earlier this year (client access required).

You’re not going to find personalized marketing success by using gimmicks, or placing a bunch of variable fields in your marketing, or compiling detailed customer profiles, or flicking the “on” switch to your fancy new personalization engine. Think about how you can use all of the insights at your fingertips to provide assistive, relevant, valuable interactions with your audience. They’ll thank you for it later.

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