Imagine arriving home early one workday and your phone goes off to say you’ve received a message. But this isn’t a message from friends or family, it’s an advert from a brand you haven’t engaged with before. “We’ve noticed you’ve arrived home early” it says, naming your hometown, before proceeding to suggest you might be looking for a new job. How would you feel? Is this just advertising? A useful link to a potential new role? Or might it make you feel like the advertisers are stalking you?

For some people, at least, a recent mobile marketing campaign like this has been thought of as the latter. A little stalker-y. Maybe a little creepy.

Personalised ads are, typically, better ads. They get the right message to the right person. And with digital we are able to target these even more specifically – no longer do we have to target our ads based on the broad demographics reading a particular title, or watching a particular TV programme. We can use data from digital sources to understand more about our audiences as individuals, and then target them with specific messaging just for them.

And, the argument goes, this means we get the right message in front of the right person at the time they are ready to take a particular action. So advertising becomes more effective.

The challenge is when personalisation goes bad – when it goes from useful to creepy – and there are three considerations to avoid this.

1. Serendipity not stalking

Most people are not consciously aware of the trail of digital data they leave behind online, nor the potential for brands and advertisers to target them based on this. So to confront them with something that is so overtly personal can often have a negative impact – what you had hoped was a relevant, personalised advert comes across as creepy. The key is to make sure that whilst you might be personalising the message and timing for an individual, it needs to look like serendipity and not stalking. If we think that people are looking for new jobs when they go home from work, we don’t need to tell people we know where they live or that they are on their way home, we just need to make sure they see the right advert at that time.

2. Delivering value through personalisation

People typically see personalisation as useful (and not creepy) when it gives them something of value. Using what we know about our audience means we can direct them to products they might be interested in (rather than things that are not relevant) which makes it more likely that our advert will be effective. If we need to overtly get data from people then it needs to be clear what the value exchange is – what do they get back by giving us data?

3. Personalisation not personal data

Finally – nobody likes people who are overly-friendly, and nobody likes adverts that seem overly personal. “Hello Sarah, we know you’re searching for a holiday”, for example, would be in the ‘creepy not personalised’ category. And the same would be true about any adverts that overtly include personal data in the advert themselves. There may be the temptation to include people’s location, or hometown, name or other data about them in the advert, but brands need to think if that is necessary.

Usually personalisation lets us position the best creative idea in front of the right people at the right time. It’s about micro-targetting and micro-moments, not about creating ads that intrudes into people’s lives.

Matt Rhodes

About Matt Rhodes

Digital Strategy Director for work. Marathon runner and charity trustee for fun.

Follow Matt Rhodes