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There is no longer any doubt that marketers overwhelmingly believe in the value of personalization. Most marketing leaders now view personalization as essential to marketing success, and providing personalized messages and customer experiences has become a top priority in many companies.

Numerous research studies have confirmed that large majorities of marketers believe personalization improves marketing and business performance. For example, in the 2019 Trends in Personalization survey by Researchscape International, 70% of surveyed marketers said personalization has a strong or extremely strong impact on advancing customer relationships.

And in a 2018 survey of more than 600 business executives by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, more than half of the survey respondents said personalization is an important driver of their revenue and profits.

Recent research also shows, however, that marketers have more work to do to realize the full potential of personalization. In the Researchscape International survey, only 16% of survey respondents said they are very or extremely satisfied with the level of personalization in their marketing efforts. Fully half of the respondents said they are not satisfied or only slightly satisfied.

To maximize the impact and effectiveness of personalization, marketers need to use the right level of personalization for each customer interaction. Most marketing pundits and many marketing leaders seem to believe that the key to maximizing the benefits of personalized marketing is more personalization. According to this view, the right strategy is to leverage every bit of available data about customers and prospects to make personalization more specific, and to use personalization more frequently, in more channels, and for more types of communications and experiences.

But as I recently argued, the problem with the “more personalization” approach is that it largely ignores the real and growing privacy concerns of both consumers and business buyers. The real key to maximizing the effectiveness of personalization is to use an appropriate level of personalization for each interaction with a customer or prospect. And in some situations, the best strategy will be less, not more, personalization.

The Corporate Visions Research

Recent research by Corporate Visions provides compelling evidence that less can in fact be more when it comes to personalization. This study consisted of a live field trial that involved nearly 7,000 potential buyers in the Corporate Visions prospect database. All of the prospects in the trial met two criteria:

  • Each was a cold prospect – someone who had had no prior interaction with Corporate Visions
  • Each fit the Corporate Visions ideal client profile (industry vertical, company size, and job title).

The objective of this study was to test the effectiveness of four methods or levels of personalization:

  • Industry only
  • Company only
  • Industry + personal
  • Company + personal

For the trial, Corporate Visions used emails that had identical offers and calls-to-action, but different subject lines and openings based on the method of personalization used. (Note: The research report includes examples of the emails.)

The trial used three metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of each level of personalization – open rates, click-through rates, and number of meetings scheduled. The following table summarizes the results of the field trial.

As the table shows, the emails that used company + personal personalization (the highest level of personalization) produced the highest open rates, while those using industry only personalization (the lowest level of personalization) produced the lowest open rates. But the positions were exactly reversed with click-through rates. The emails that used industry only personalization produced the highest click-through rates, while those using company + personal personalization produced the lowest.

In terms of meetings, the emails that embodied either industry + personal or industry only personalization produced significantly more scheduled meetings than those using either company + personal or company only personalization.

So the results of this trial indicate that when reaching out to cold prospects, messages that embody less personalization actually produce better conversion rates than messages using higher levels of personalization.

Explaining the Differences

The Corporate Visions research did not attempt to explain why the different methods or levels of personalization produced different results. However, in the research report, Leslie Talbot, Corporate Visions’ Vice President of Customer and Commercial Excellence, offered a possible explanation:

“Human beings are self-centered enough to respond readily to something that looks like it’s personal to us. But when we discover the underlying gimmick – that is, someone plucked a random fact from our LinkedIn profile and used it to suck us in – the letdown factor is enough to preclude further action.

Similarly, when you try to ingratiate yourself to someone by referencing an issue specific to their company, they already know you don’t work there – you’ve just read publicly available content . . .

On the other hand, if you offer an insight about a prospect’s industry, you activate their voyeurism . . . So when you share a story about how a similar company struggled and solved a common industry concern, they’re better able to project themselves into the story and eager to find out what happened next.”

I believe that Ms. Talbot’s speculation is fairly accurate. To be effective, personalization must be based on genuine insights. When you take personalization beyond such insights, it become inauthentic, and customers or prospects will tend to view it as presumptuous.