When personalization goes wrong

Personalization is an important part of modern marketing and customer engagement. By creating personalized campaigns that resonate with people on an individual basis, companies have the potential to forge stronger connections with prospects and customers, strengthen their brand, and boost sales. Meanwhile, companies that fail to create custom experiences for their audiences risk turning them off. One study, for example, found that 74 percent of online consumers feel frustrated with websites whose offers, ads, and promotions have nothing to do with their interests.

While personalization is certainly critical to making inroads with customers, it’s important to note that it’s also a double-edged sword. Done well, personalization can leave customers feeling like brands understand them. Make mistakes or cross the line, however, and the results can be disastrous. In the worst cases, it won’t give customers what they actually want, but instead leave them feeling creeped out, which can wreak havoc on your bottom line. Not to mention the iffy data usage practices that personalization relies on.

In this post, we’ll look at some examples of times when attempts at personalization went wrong. Finally, we’ll take a look at what you can do instead.


Most of us have received an email at one point or another with the unfortunate greeting: “Hey [first-name]!” And while glaring personalization fails like this are cringeworthy, these days they are also easy enough to laugh off. Unfortunately, with other mistakes that’s not always the case. As we’ll see, while some personalization fails might be humorous, others cross the line into what can feel overly invasive or creepy. Either way, they can alienate prospects and customers, rather than help to bring them closer. Just consider some of the real-life examples below.

1) The context fail

After putting her father in assisted living, a woman on Twitter shared that she was horrified to learn that her father had subsequently received a Christmas basket from a local funeral home.

2) The stereotype fail

After his parents bought him his own seat on a transatlantic flight, a two-year-old received an offer for a credit card with thousands of free frequent flyer miles. The offer noted the child’s impeccable (albeit non-existent) credit history as one of the reasons why he’d been selected to receive the card.

3) The creep factor

In one of its many attempts at personalization, in its Haunted Mansion, Disney World tries to give visitors a unique experience as they visit the attraction. One such example is projecting visitors’ names on tombstones as they pass by. Not only that, the display also includes signage that changes dynamically to reflect the visitor’s home state.

4) The sensitivity fail

In 2014, Shutterfly made the unfortunate mistake of sending a congratulatory email to existing users who they thought were new parents. In reality, many of the users had no children at all, while some had recently dealt with miscarriages and infertility.

Whether innocuous or offensive, personalization fails can do real damage. Not only can they erode your brand, they can also undermine your bottom line. In fact, according to research from Accenture, in 2016 alone, personalization fails and the lack of trust they resulted in, cost American companies $756 billion. That’s because 41 percent of consumers ultimately decided to switch companies as a result of those experiences.

Putting personalization in the past

There’s no doubt that companies need to create personalized experiences for their customers. They’re critical to driving engagement and building stronger, more profitable relationships. The problem is that when they get to be too personal, they run the risk of making customers feel uncomfortable. So much so, that they take their business elsewhere.

To avoid issues like these, it’s important to find a partner that takes a smarter approach. Here at integrate, for example, instead of looking at personal identifiers and using them to inform the experience we provide users with, we look at behavioral patterns that aren’t tied back to any individual. We also never use personally identifiable information (PII), meaning that we can help you create personalized experiences for your customers, without alienating them. The result is a a win-win for everyone involved.

If you want to learn more about how we can make online experiences relevant for your customers without compromising their trust or privacy, let’s talk.


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