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Relationship Therapy: Consumer Brands & Customers

Personalization of ads and targeting consumers directly has grown immensely in a data-rich online environment. But how far is too far, and how can market researchers find balance in ad effectiveness and maintaining customer relationships?

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Marni Mandell will be speaking at IIeX North America 2019 in Austin, TX. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more. 


Emma wakes up on Monday morning and tweets about how much she misses traveling and how frustrated she is with her 9-5 schedule. This has become a Monday tradition for her, as she has become annoyed with how strict her office job is. On Thursday she posts a picture from her latest trip to Australia with the hashtag #TBT. Emma is very active on all her social media accounts and loves giving her friends updates on her life.

A few days later, on the weekend she uses her search browser to look for freelance jobs for designers. She goes into a few travel blogs, logs into job portals with her Facebook account and goes on an airlines’ website to check flight prices for Spain. For the following 14 days her instagram feed is flooded with ads about flights to Madrid, her Facebook feed is full with job recruiter ads, some directly targeting her by name, and every time she’s reading the news she sees beautiful photos from all around the world.

Emma has mixed emotions about the ads she’s seeing: on one hand she enjoys the personalized attention which inspires her to search more, find new options and helps her understand how to resolve some of her life’s problems. On the other, she feels watched, she’s creeped out by how much information companies have on her, how much she’s actually letting others see about her life and needs. She suddenly remembers a huge data breach there had been one month ago and decides to delete her browsers memory and stop posting for a while. She starts using private windows so companies can’t “find” her.

In Emma’s story, we can see one of the biggest problems companies are encountering nowadays. Every study and survey proves that customers prefer personalized ads and service, but they are also scared about how much of their information is out there and can be bought and used by people they don’t even know. Emma doesn’t want to make a huge effort to plan her trip, she wants someone who understands her and her needs, even better than she understands herself.

In spite of this, she doesn’t want to feel like companies are stalking her or watching her from behind a curtain. She’s also uncomfortable not knowing how much information is actually taken from her online activity. Marketing teams know this and they try to be subtle with the personalization of ads. But there is another possibility and it’s something Emma tweeted recently after a fight with her boyfriend: “Honesty is the best policy”.

By changing the nature of your relationship with Emma you can change how you do business or how you create marketing campaigns. Instead of being the FBI, and collecting information in the shadows, you can become a partner, you can let Emma know what you’re going to look at and why, you can also let her tell you what she doesn’t want you to see. Transparency is the focal point of the new company-consumer relationship we propose. By bringing the consumer into the process of data sharing, we allow them to become a part of the decision on how they will be approached – thus changing their perspective from targeted to personalized.

However, this should only be the beginning. If you’ve done a good personalization job, Emma will feel closer to your brand and will have a better customer experience – and even learn about herself in the process. Here within lies the key factor of your new found relationship with your consumers. They will understand the value of sharing information with you and will eventually give you more access to their lives in order to get more personalized products and services. This will create a cycle that will bring more information and more opportunities to build deeper insights into consumers’ needs.

As you might have noticed, the new relationship you are going to have with Emma sounds a lot like dating, because it is. Being honest and transparent are the keys to building long lasting quality relationships. So when you think about how you build a relationship with Emma, would you rather be sitting at her table learning about her passions or sitting at the table behind her overhearing her phone call?

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