In the movie Minority Report, there’s a fascinating scene that illustrates how personalized messages might be delivered 50 years in the future. The camera follows Tom Cruise as he runs through a mall. In-mall advertising posters have become holograms. They use facial recognition technology to address him by name and deliver sales messages that are personally relevant to him. Here’s that scene.

Interesting sci-fi? Sure. But while it seemed very futuristic when the movie came out in 2002, the approach isn’t too far removed from the type of personalized messages we can deliver today with big data.

There’s psychology behind personalization. Everyone, young and old, has a basic psychological need to be acknowledged, understood and valued. We feel good when a waiter calls us by name, serves us “the usual” or remembers to ask about our family. So it stands to reason that a personalized direct marketing piece will have increased consumer appeal when it creates a sense of familiarity. You’re more likely to open an envelope that’s addressed to “Your Name” than “Current Resident.”

Personalization is about giving each user a unique experience. Based on Eloqua research data1, the best-performing emails offer a personalized subject line (5% open rate). But they are even more effective (over 9% open rate) if they include another point of data, such as the reader’s location.

There’s a wide array of options for personalizing a marketing message. The most basic is changing a name and address on a letter. But thanks to the digital processes involved in Variable Data Printing, many exciting variables can be altered on the fly to produce many targeted versions, including changing the text and images that go to different individuals in different markets. A full-line car brochure might change out the car image that’s shown on the cover to match the demographics of that particular recipient. The affluent single buyer probably won’t be getting a minivan on the cover. And the buyer who lives in the desert doesn’t have to look at irrelevant images of an AWD vehicle in the snow.

According to Forest Wathen, Prepress Manager at EU Services, “The question for the creative folks in direct marketing is: What can I do with what I have? What data can I segment or append to drive the creative content?”

These days, with its proven results and efficiencies, personalization is the new normal. We used to be amazed at how Amazon or Netflix made recommendations to us that were spot on. Now we expect it. Because of automatic optimization processes at work on most large websites, viewers will be served increasingly relevant ads based on what they’ve shown interest in. If you were just browsing European vacation destinations, let’s say the Amalfi Coast, it shouldn’t be surprising when you suddenly start seeing banner ads for low airfares to Italy on the next few clicks. And you might just receive a direct mail piece featuring an image of a beautiful beach with your name written in the sand.

Personalization is about building long-term customer value and loyalty. No longer are the people reading your messages random, faceless targets. For a communication to be truly personalized, the content needs to be relevant, timely and, above all, human.