For more than two decades, experts have urged marketers to use personalized messages to boost the effectiveness of marketing communications. Many marketers have heeded this advice, and they are now using various technology tools to create personalized marketing messages in a variety of media and formats, including web pages, e-mail messages, and printed materials such as direct mail documents.

The most common way to personalize a marketing message is to include specific facts about the recipient in the message. Some examples would include the recipient’s name, her job title, company affiliation, the industry in which she works, or information about a recent purchase. The reality is, this type of explicit personalization no longer has much impact with potential buyers, largely because so many marketers are using similar personalization tactics. Two recent research projects have confirmed that explicit personalization alone has become an anemic tool for improving the effectiveness of marketing communications.

Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) conducted two concurrent surveys sponsored by Lyris. One of the surveys was directed at consumers, and it asked survey participants about the effectiveness of various marketing channels and tactics, how they prefer to engage with brands, and what influences their purchase decisions. You can obtain an executive summary of the EIU survey report here.

The major findings from the EIU consumer survey regarding personalization include the following:

  • More than 70% of survey respondents said that the volume of personalized messages they receive has increased over the past five years.
  • Seventy percent of the respondents said that many of the personalized messages they receive are annoying because the attempts at personalization are superficial.
  • Sixty-three percent of respondents said that personalization is now so common that they have grown numb to it.
  • Only 22% of respondents said that personalized offers are more likely to meet their needs than mass market offers.

Research by the CEB Marketing Leadership Council also shows that explicit personalization has lost much of its impact. In July of this year, CEB surveyed 1,500 consumers from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia regarding how, why, and what they buy, and about their attitudes regarding the tactics brands use to engage them. One of the survey questions asked participants how they felt about some of the more common forms of explicit personalization. The table below shows how the survey participants responded.

The lesson here is that explicit personalization alone is not sufficient to make marketing messages more effective. The real key to improving the effectiveness of your marketing messages is to use what you know about your potential buyers to craft messages that will be more relevant and useful to those buyers. Relevance and usefulness (what Jay Baer calls “Youtility“), not mere personalization, are the real drivers of better marketing results.

This doesn’t mean that you should stop personalizing marketing messages. It does mean that the personalization should be contextually appropriate (not just a gimmick) and that personalization shouldn’t be the core component of your messaging strategy.