PHD Media Worldwide > News > Simon Harwood, PHD UK’s head of futures, writes about The Rules for Personalisation.
April 7 2015

Simon Harwood, PHD UK’s head of futures, writes about The Rules for Personalisation.


I remember a time when ‘personalisation’ meant your mum sewing your name into your school uniform. Nowadays it’s everywhere, especially the online space, with brands using it to create a connection with people.

We already know personalisation can be a powerful tool via our performance clients measuring the effects of optimisation. What we don’t know is how people really feel about it and if there are any casualties along the way. What’s wonderful about it? What’s weird? And what’s just plain wicked?

At PHD UK we thought we’d find out by creating an experiment.

We surveyed 2,000 people to find out their personal details, from having kids to how quickly they paid off their credit card. Weeks later we then re-contacted the same people under the guise of filling out a website survey.

But what we were really interested in was their reaction to 400 personalised ads peppered throughout the survey across 4 categories – travel, entertainment, retail & finance – with 3 different levels of intimacy

What we found was really interesting. We thought personalisation would have the biggest effect on high interest categories, but the exact opposite turned out to be true. Some categories just don’t need extra help to connect as they are naturally more interesting. It was the lower interest categories that benefited the most from personalisation.

They enjoyed the biggest incremental effects in terms of noticeability, impact & brand uplift. Personalisation helps lower interest brands to connect with people and punch above their weight.

We were then able to devise some clear rules for brands to get the most out of personalisation.

Rule 1: Make a confident, direct approach

Don’t mince your words, get straight to the point. You have to get specific to get noticed.

Make sure they know you are talking to them so they recognise their own personal traits in what you are saying, and avoid generalisations

Rule 2: Always be useful. If you can’t help, walk away

Spell out exactly what you are bringing to the party and how can you help make their lives a bit easier.

In the finance category for example, we saw a 122% increase for ‘helpful’ personalised messages vs traditional advertising.

Rule 3: Context matters to the power of 3

If the ads appeared on a website that people already had high affinity towards, they were three times more likely to respond positively to personalisation.

Rule 4: Under 35? Personalise

Our experiment had a disproportionate effect on the under 35s. We found a 45% uplift in positive sentiment around personalised ads compared to their over 35s counterparts. They expect a certain degree of personalisation – and respond well if you get it right.

But get this wrong at your peril. Not everything can be done algorithmically, and some things still need the human touch.

In reality, personalisation is carried out by machines, determined on an algorithm. Computers will auto generate millions of creative iterations, and if the feedback loop says yes, the computer lacks the cultural context to understand human sensitivities.

So we thought we’d see what would happen if we acted like machines, and took the message to its inevitable conclusion. We dialled up the intimacy to extreme levels, going into ‘no-mans-land’ by adding name & religion to the copy.

67% of people found these extreme personalisation ads creepy and intrusive, across all categories

When machines try to act like humans in this way, it quickly becomes the stuff of nightmares, crossing over into the ‘uncanny valley’. You don’t just become creepy, you become a creep.

The advertising industry is not far from crossing the line from auto-placement of ads by AI to auto-creation of ads by AI – spelling the end of AB testing. But if you’re running thousands of auto-created ads at any one time what you’ve got is a ticking time bomb of potential offensive messaging.

So how do we prevent the inevitable? How do we stop the machine sense over-ruling common sense?

Well, the good news is that it’s in our hands. Here are three further rules that we follow at PHD to make sure the human touch is always applied.

Rule 5: Always ensure there is a human conscience.

A human must always be involved in the process, not just a computer.

Rule 6: Take time to set boundaries

Right up front, set clear parameters of what is and isn’t allowed.

Rule 7: Give yourself time-out before send-out

You should give yourself the opportunity to have a time-out before the business of real time deployment begins in earnest, especially at the early stages of an AI. This means including brand owners in the process as the guardians of the brand’s reputation.

In summary, we’ve learnt that ‘personalisation elasticity’ is stretchier than brands might think. They can go further than they currently dare tread, especially those in a low interest categories.

But go too far, and you’ll still end up a creep, so be careful out there.

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