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Bad personalization: What it looks like and how to fix it

Not all personalization is good, valuable, or appreciated. Learn where many brands fall into personalization pitfalls and how to get or keep your efforts on solid ground.

How can personalization go wrong?

Personalization is a must-have for any modern business hoping to gain customer loyalty and trust. So, then why aren’t more companies enjoying the benefits that personalization can deliver? Some thorny issues often stand in the way.

From a lack of resources (technological, financial, human, and time) or processes to the complexities of customer interaction data and the understanding of marketing ROI — it’s not surprising to learn that almost half of all brands aren’t attempting to personalize their content.

For those brands that are investing their efforts into personalization, these numbers reveal another level of challenges:

  • Personalization is appreciated by 69% of customers as long as it is based on data they have explicitly shared with a business.
  • Providing tailored customer experiences to customers continues to be a challenge for over two-thirds of digital marketing executives.
  • By 2025, 80% of marketers who have invested in personalization will abandon their efforts due to a lack of ROI.
  • Only 6% of businesses can properly consolidate data into a single representation of the customer for tailored experiences across channels.
  • 71% of customers expect businesses to provide personalized experiences, and 76% feel frustrated when this customer expectation goes unmet.

From segmentation to individualization

Segmentation is the process of grouping customers into sets based on shared characteristics or behaviors. Segmentation makes it easier to customize the content you deliver to similar customers, and it’s often seen as the low-hanging fruit in the quest for personalization. Examples of single-variable customer segments might be ones based on gender, age, or location.

While it acts as a starting point, there’s a lot more information about your customers than just these single traits that you could (and should) be leveraging if you want to achieve truly individualized personalization and increase conversion rates.

Multiple-variable customer segments

As you might guess, multiple-variable customer segments group customers by sets of demographic traits or behaviors they have in common, rather than only one. An example might be a shopper who:

  • Is from Japan
  • Has never transacted before
  • Has an interest in the headphones product category
  • Is female, age 25-30

While this clearly provides more insight and allows for deeper personalization than single-variable segments, it still relies on a heavy dose of generalization that leaves behind some unanswered questions:

Are all the people in this segment really the same? Do their wants and needs vary? Do they all have the same motivation or sense of urgency for visiting your site?

The wrong assumptions can cause bad personalization and a brand experience that turns customers away.


In the most advanced form of marketing personalization, getting granular with your customer data, whether that’s from email marketing, social media, or other sources, puts you on the path to delivering truly individualized experiences to every customer.

This means you’re leveraging everything you’ve learned about your visitors, such as the type of device they’re using to visit your site, the time of day they’re visiting, why they’re visiting, and more.

Understanding each customer’s individual motivations, and then customizing the content you serve them accordingly, gives your brand an important competitive advantage.

Personalization fixes: 3 steps for success

Rather than being overwhelmed or discouraged about how to begin optimizing your personalization efforts, try looking at it as an opportunity. The first step toward optimization is acknowledging that there’s some work to do and that you’ve already taken that step. Congratulations! Now, let’s explore how you might take it further.

Step 1: Test and learn

Content testing is a good way to start data collection on what’s working and what’s not and avoid personalization mistakes. While the analytics you get back aren’t a magical formula that tells you what to do, they will give you insight into what content is performing best, and perhaps even for which segments. That measurable impact ends the guessing game and acts as proof that you can use to adjust and fine-tune your personalization strategy going forward.

Step 2: Start small

On your path to doing personalization right, it’s wise to walk before you run — but it’s even wiser to crawl before you walk. Rather than trying to do it all at once and becoming an overnight personalization sensation, it’s more realistic to start with small, incremental improvements. Little wins add up, and they also provide insights you can use to fine-tune your marketing strategy and content.

Start by targeting a single persona. If you have the right data available to support it, try targeting the one that has the most value for your organization. Improving the user experience of a high-value customer will deliver better results sooner.

Try concentrating on a specific element as well, such as the hero banner on your home page, or the checkout page in your e-commerce app. A single focus makes it easier to measure, analyze, and learn from the results.

You can then test the performance of personalized content against default content, and get buy-in from your internal stakeholders by showing them the ROI of your efforts.

Step 3: Consider your customers’ journey

Having the tools is great — but don’t forget to think about how best to use them. Consider your customers’ journey and the steps they take in interacting with your brand. Insights like this can help you plan your personalization more strategically, using triggers to help guide customers along their journey.

An easy place to start is by analyzing how people find you. Let’s assume you have campaigns for keyword searches on search engines. When a visitor clicks on your link, is the page they land on personalized with content related to their search? And where do you guide them from there, based on what you know about them?

The ‘back’ button is a single click, and visitors won’t hesitate to use it if the information that’s served to them doesn’t seem relevant. Personalization gone wrong can be detrimental to your business.

Remember: Relevancy rules

Just because you can personalize, doesn’t always mean you should. Make sure your marketing efforts are relevant and customer-centric, without going too far. There’s customized, and then there’s creepy. Doing personalization wrong will never benefit your business.

There are also legal aspects to consider. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is one recent area that gives EU residents rights over the data you store on them, and how they allow you to use it.

Let’s say you target a customer by addressing them by name in a webpage banner or continuing to show them relevant content based on something they viewed months ago. You then run the risk of turning them off and losing them, or worse, violating the GDPR.

Look at the power of personalization as an opportunity to demonstrate how data-driven decisions can help you craft better user experiences and improve customer retention.