“Hyper-Personalization is the only marketing strategy that matters in 2017.”
– Huffington Post 1/22/17
Hyper-personalization has become the bees knees in marketing. And while I tend to view the various “tactics” of our sales-focused world with a bit of side-eye, this buzzword has legs. I’ve invested in it, learning how it works best and letting it influence my work.
Why pick up this one when the others get side-eye?
When I’m creating work, I always keep the people I’m speaking to in mind: real human beings, all different, with different needs, expectations, values, languages, preferences, and desires. Hyper-personalization means throwing out messaging that speaks to everyone at once. Instead, we create specific campaigns and messaging for specific groups of people.
Does talking to every single person in the same way make sense? No, of course not. But you knew that already. That said, we’re not quite able to speak to everyone individually. This would require millions of individual campaigns specifically written for millions of people. So what’s the compromise?
There are various ways to personalize your work. But don’t be the brand that pats itself on the back for extracting the “first name” section from a database and then sending me a message that says “Hello (pause) Cheryl.” That gesture is not a victory for anyone.
Marketers want to make content that speaks to you; we want you to feel an emotional attachment to the words on your screen. There’s a field that’s been doing this work for decades, and doing it really well: let’s see what we can learn about hyper-personalization through the lens of pop culture.
The Good: The Spice Girls
In the mid-90’s, when boy bands dominated the pop music scene, a team from Heart Management thought they could make a splash in the industry by using very specific personalization tactics. They placed an ad in Splash magazine for female singers. 400 singers auditioned, 5 were selected, and the Spice Girls were born.
Instead of just one governing image, the Spice Girls offered the teens who made up their fan base five different ways to recognize themselves in the group–five ways to feel like their identities were visible and important. Each of these roles was individually marketed and reinforced by the nicknames adopted by each member of the group.
The Spice Girls segmented their fan base into categories based on personality preferences and unique identifiers. The group blended high fashion, sweet-natured girliness, athleticism, free-spiritedness, and outspoken girl power together in one huge fan base. This careful, planned segmentation opened the door to new channels for advertising. For the first time ever, commercials from large brands were played before and during intermission at Spice Girls’ concerts, targeting audiences based on identities known to be appealing to their fans.
Personalizing the group’s image to suit several distinct sets of interests and preferences was instrumental in their success. What felt so effortless and right to millions of fans was a tireless effort from both the performers and their managers, who curated and then enacted this carefully calibrated set of personalities.
The Bad and Ugly: Kendall Jenner and Pepsi
What happens when you listen to your users needs, values, and preferences around important social movements? You’re trying real hard to be part of the conversation, and you’re partnering with someone who is influential to your user base. Sounds okay, but this is how personalization can go very, very wrong.
Influencer marketing identifies important shared qualities or values in a target market and someone important to that audience, hoping they’ll identify with that influencer: “Oh I like this person, and I see part of myself in them. If they like this product, I’m sure I would as well.”
The trouble comes when companies fuck it up by making it about a product instead of a movement.
In April 2017, amid the surge of popular support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s March, Pepsi decided to position itself in the conversation using–so hot at the moment–Kendall Jenner as their connection to the youngsters. The problem? Trying to participate in a complex and serious-minded movement by offering Jenner and a $2.50 beverage as the solution. The ad exploited and belittled the people it was trying to reach and looked like shallow pandering to everyone else.
Pepsi’s attempt to connect with their users’ values and to personalize the message via influencer marketing failed because they didn’t apply critical thinking to the data collected on their users. Where the Spice Girls used their influence to celebrate and support the unique personalities of their fan base, Pepsi identified a meaningful and challenging issue for its audience and then clumsily exploited that issue for higher sales.
How to not mess it up
We love having data that helps us understand our audience. It’s part of learning about who they are and where they are on their journey. We’ve built programs that extract impressive insights from user data. We pour over long reports on analytics and fan girl over charts and percentages and KPI’s. The numbers are addicting. They can forecast what success means for a given channel and identify which trends are performing well for an audience.
But all of this means nothing if we don’t apply a human perspective to the data. Yes, personalization is a great way to help your users feel heard and understood, but if you aren’t applying a layer of critical thinking and carefully considering how you would speak to real humans instead of percentages, you will surely miss the mark.