The Evolution of Personalization in Marketing

The Evolution of Personalization in Marketing

Technology has helped drive many changes in marketing. Most notably in terms of reach and personalization of the marketing message and experience. With each new iteration, new opportunities and new challenges have emerged, as have ethical, financial, and management concerns about how to properly, efficiently, and effectively use technologies. Many large companies have sunk millions into technologies that either haven’t paid off or have been made obsolete by privacy laws and buyer behavior. Because of these issues, many are debating the fate of personalization technologies. So, we thought it was time to chime in with our two cents.

The Evolution of Personalization in Marketing

The Rise of Mail Merge and Variable Data

My first experience with “personalized” marketing communications was in the 90’s with the advent of mail merge. In those days, much of my copywriting work was spent typing up business and sales letters for RV dealerships and other sales-based organizations. When I first started, I would have to go on my word processor (yes word processor with a three inch screen that showed a couple of words at a time) and type out my template then go back and retype each letter, changing the “to” address and name. When Microsoft introduced Mail Merge, I fought to learn how to format everything so it would merge correctly, keeping the margins the same and matching up the names and addresses perfectly.

The basic technology of Mail Merge has stuck around, evolving to what we often see as custom fields or variable data. Instead of just swapping out addresses, now we can swap out a number of data fields within the body of a communication. We can change the sender and, in some cases, even change out the images and design to better target the receiver. All we have to do is set up a single template, define the parameters, and make sure that the client data is complete and accurate. The system handles the rest.

Of course, it’s not perfect. There have been many times where I’ve been labeled a “Mr.” when receiving variable communication or have seen variable data within a body of text fail to change at all (my name suddenly became Omar halfway through one sales email I received). Still, it allows us to tap into many tenets of psychology such as “the power of seeing and hearing your own name” or the value of seeing people “just like me” in the images of the advertisement.

Data Driven Personalization

The next iteration of personalization is the one that has become the most controversial.  Technology not only allows us to collect and organize the information clients themselves provide, now thanks to the development of tracking codes, bots, voice technology, and others, all web and mobile data can be captured. This includes your search and browser history, time on page and click throughs, and even conversations from eavesdropping mobile butlers like Siri and Alexa. This has led to the “creep” factor in marketing, where a private conversation suddenly leads to targeted ads on Facebook and Google. This unfettered use of data has many consumers and legislators driving for restricted collection and use of data, and some screaming conspiracy.

In addition to the ethical considerations, much of the technologies that fuel this type of marketing personalization are very expensive, complex, and have proved difficult for many to fully implement. The ROI hasn’t manifested like companies hoped and many are abandoning the most robust (and some would say invasive) forms of data collecting and personalization. It’s not going to go away completely. And so long as companies disclose how they are collecting and using data and avoid selling data to third parties, I believe many can and will continue to use some data driven personalization to help carry customers along the digital journey. Still, market pressures are forcing many marketers to look at other methods for customizing the client journey without crossing the line into stalker-ville. This is manifesting in a new form of personalization.

Choice Driven Personalization

The best solutions aren’t always the most advanced or sophisticated. They are, however, largely driven and informed by the customer. There are many simple ways to put the customer in the driver’s seat of their experience. Early examples which are still highly effective include content silos and branded channels that are designed for specific customer segments or phases of the customer journey. This lets the customer choose what content is most relevant to them.

Email marketing, apps, and other technologies also have features that allow customers to choose the content that’s relevant to them and to provide the level of information they are comfortable sharing. As the system collects data, marketers can build journeys and options, letting customers choose what action to take, what is interesting, and what they want to share with us in return. This is what I call “choose your own adventure marketing.” The term is based on my horribly nerdy obsession with choose your own adventure books as a kid. I got to be the lead character and choose what happened next as I grew my wizarding skills and fought goblins and evil knights on my way to retrieve the enchanted stone. Not only was it fun (except that time I led my character to death by decapitation), I was much more invested in the series than if I had been a passive reader.


Of course, all forms of personalization demand responsible use and application by the marketer. If you don’t engage in all of your marketing endeavors with a healthy respect and concern for the customer, it will show and customers will stop engaging. Not to mention the fact that ethical marketing that puts the customer’s needs in the forefront is just the right way to do business.

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