When data-driven marketing feels like stalking


At this year’s ADMA Data Day, Woolworths Head of Everyday Rewards & Woolworths Insurance, George Hughes, was addressing the Data-driven marketing stream about the retailer’s successful Everyday Rewards scheme. When the time came for questions, the plaintive cry rang out across the conference room: “How does Woolworth’s know which toothpaste I use?”

It was an unexpected question, given the audience of data-savvy, or at least data-interested, marketers. Most people in the room had a certain level of understanding of how Woolworths would collect and use customer purchasing information.

But the moment did raise an important issue along with a few smiles. With so much data available to organisations, the ability to target highly personalised messages, experiences and offers is not only within our reach but also increasingly BAU. So much is now known – or at least knowable – about customers at any point in their lives. In theory, with a smart phone in many customer pockets, marketers could know where customers are at any given moment and tailor a marketing message accordingly.

Up to a point, customers do expect the information available to the companies they engage with to be collected and used appropriately. We are increasingly used to the trade off – my information in return for an offer.  In a recent study, telco-consumer experience company Amdocs found that 71% of Australians were happy to provide their data in exchange for better value plans and faster internet access.

But at what point does data-driven marketing gives us that uncomfortable feeling that we are under surveillance?

The toothpaste question worried its asker partly because of the context, I’m sure. Most of us clean our teeth in our bathrooms, that most hallowed of private sanctuaries, where a niggling little paranoia that someone is watching is far from welcome. Certain verticals have more sensitivity associated than others and the concern that someone knows too much about our finances, health or children, for example, is never likely to engender a feeling of warm responsiveness in the customer.

Data privacy as well as bathroom privacy of course comes into play in how we feel about the offers we receive. In simple terms, when we provide our information for one purpose, we don’t like to see it used for another. Nor does the Privacy Commissioner. But there is more to it than that. Our information can be used perfectly in accordance with the rules and yet we can still feel like we are being watched. Like the poor toothpaste lady.

Much of the reception a personalised offer will receive depends on the skill with which it is positioned. Nike’s monitoring device – the Nike+ Fuelband – tracks users’ fitness activities such as running and the data generated of course offers opportunities for highly-targeted marketing.

Already using the information to tailor products, Nike is aware that they are treading a fine line here. Stefan Olander, the company’s Head of Digital Sport, told Bloomberg:

“Technically there is no reason why we couldn’t create the capability so that when you walk into a store, we’ll know that you’re there and can give you better service. But we have to make sure it feels like a service rather than stalking.”

In the end, this is one area in which our digital age can look back to traditional direct response marketing for clues. The offer has to be right. With a relevant offer that exceeds expectations, made to the right people at the right time, the outcome will always be customer delight not customer creep-out.

Have you received a personalised message recently that felt creepy rather than clever? And – maybe the more interesting question – have you ever got it wrong and sent one?