How to Talk to People, Not Segments: The Evolution of Real-Time Personalization

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If I had $1 for every time I heard a marketer say “there has never been a more exciting or challenging time to be a marketer” I would be a rich man. This week marks my one year anniversary of working for IBM within the customer engagement team, and I have lost count of the amount of conferences I have been to where I heard that phrase. The problem is not that the phrase isn’t true, it’s is VERY true, it’s just that few people explain why the current state of the marketing industry is both exciting and terrifying. So let me help you with some context, before I talk to you about the most important challenge facing marketers in 2017. I spend a lot of time working with marketing trends and research. Here are a few research soundbites I’ve heard, read or spoken about at conferences over the last 12 months:

  • 55% of consumers no longer want to give any data to marketers. (eMarketer)
  • The vast majority of social media conversations now occur in private on messaging apps, and not in public on social networks like they used to. (Radium One)
  • 70% of chatbots launched in the last 12 months have failed. (Facebook)
  • 78% of consumers say that they don’t want a relationship with a brand. (Harvard Business Review)
  • The total amount of data in the entire world has doubled in the last 18 months. (IBM)
  • There are now 40% more companies selling “Campaign Automation” and “Personalization” solutions than there were the previous year. (Chiefmartec)
  • 1 in 5 major retail brands are abandoning apps altogether. (Gartner)

These are some scary stats. They help marketers start to understand why 2017 is no longer business as usual. Being a marketer in 2017 does not mean doing what you did in 2016 only a bit faster. Being a marketer in 2017 requires a totally new way of thinking. It requires new strategic thinking in order to build faster relationships with your customers, and it requires new technologies to help you keep up with these changes in customer behavior. We even have phrases now for some of these emerging trends.

  • Dark Social: Refers to all private conversations, whether by SMS, email or private messaging apps.
  • Dark Data: Refers to 80% of all the world’s data that is ‘unstructured’ which brands struggle to analyse (includes voice data, PDFs, social web, data from connected IoT products).
  • Dark Martech: Refers to marketers who are trying to piece together their own ‘marketing clouds’ from free or cheap marketing tools to attempt to have a ‘single customer view.’ (85% of these projects fail due to lack of integration).

I conducted a piece of research of over 1,000 marketers and where dark social was concerned (one of the biggest challenges facing marketers in 2017) only 6% of them thought this was a problem!

So, if the future is SO dark, what is the solution?

How can marketers keep up in a world where attention spans have dropped below that of a goldfish (8 seconds), less people are downloading apps, more people are installing ad-blockers and most consumer conversations are now invisible to brands.

The answer is personification.

Personification is an evolution of personalization and should be every marketer’s new favourite buzzword. If you don’t know what it is or how you should do it, let me give you a brief overview before you run off and learn everything you need to know about it.

Personalization is the process of giving your customer the right message, on the right platform, using the right channel, at the right time. All good marketers know this. Very few do it well, but it is a marketing tactic we have been aware of for decades. This is all very well and good, but what if your customer doesn’t give you any of their data and you don’t know any personally identifiable information about them? What if you don’t have hundreds (or thousands) of attributes about them in your CRM system? This is where personification steps in.

Personification is the act of giving potential customers the right message, on the right platform, using the right channel, at the right time – when you DON’T have their personal information.

Personification doesn’t replace personalization, it has just become an additional stage of the customer journey that has evolved rapidly over the last 18-24 months as “dark” activities have accelerated. The challenge for marketers searching for new customers therefore, is to provide such a compelling experience without using any personal data, that Mr. or Mrs. Prospect might want to give you their information, because you gave them something of value before you asked them for their data. In the past, marketers immediately asked people for an email address, to sign in with their Facebook or Twitter account or to download their app;  today marketers must act differently. Old school marketing was capturing data first. New school marketing is creating value first.

Marketers must create more value than they capture.

For a simple, but wonderful example of what this might look like, visit or to see how the best marketers are dealing with personification. These are websites powered by IBM marketing solutions which don’t ask for any personal data upfront. These sites aim to provide such a great experience, like you might receive when you go into a store and speak to a polite and knowledgeable shop assistant, that customers would go on to make a purchase or sign up for a newsletter or special offers.

The old way of working relied upon capturing as much customer data, as fast as possible, in order to provide a seamless customer experience across every channel. Providing better experiences must still be our ultimate goal, but today technology allows us to create those experiences even when we only know a few (anonymous) things about our customers and prospects.

“In 2017, you don’t need to know everything about everybody, you just need to know a few things about a LOT of people.”

Respect, trust and transparency must be our main priorities when building customer experiences, because as consumer behavior continues to become “darker”, the brands who create the most value will not just build more profitable relationships with their customers, they will build more loyal and meaningful ones as well.

To learn how to use data to personalize customer engagements read the digital whitepaper, “Data the natural resource: 4 new ways to engage your customers like never before.”

Watson Marketing Evangelist

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