The solution to understanding your customers’ personal needs and preferences is simple—ask them. Your marketing strategy should be grounded in such insights.

Jenn Wolf, director of digital experience research and brand strategy, Merkle

The past few months have unequivocally changed us as human beings. Being faced with a global pandemic, social unrest, economic uncertainty, and the impact of these factors on our daily lives has forced us to consciously or unconsciously re-evaluate our values, the way we think and make decisions, and our behaviors.

All these things look vastly different from what they did at the beginning of 2020, which creates enormous challenges and enormous opportunities for brands and marketers. This shift in humanity invites brands to hit the virtual pause button, take a step back, learn from your customers, and adjust. And it begins with defining what personalization, privacy, and authenticity look like today.

The evolution of personalization

For years now, brands have been striving to provide better, more impactful personalized experiences, some with greater success than others. Amazon, for instance, has long been thought of as the gold standard for personalized experiences that many brands are trying to achieve. But when the world turned upside down, the context of what those personalized experiences should look like changed. Now is the time to re-evaluate. At the heart of that is understanding what customers need and expect at this time of uncertainty and unrest.  

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The question of personalization versus privacy looks at how much people are willing to give up gaining a tailored experience in return. This value exchange has been around since the cookie’s invention, if not before. With tech platforms enforcing various measures of their own to enforce privacy, marketers evaluate the question every day. We need clear answers on customer expectations from a privacy perspective.

For example, Amazon’s brand of personalization, while comprehensive, is unemotional and noticeably one-sided. Meanwhile, other brands, such as Patagonia, provide experiences that “feel personal” and are also attuned to audiences, attitudes, and values. Ideally, your brand can do both.

Finding the balance between privacy and personalization

The solution to understanding your customers’ needs and preferences is simple—ask them. A good marketing strategy should always be grounded in these insights. We know that consumers value their privacy and that only a mediocre percentage of them are comfortable with brands using personal data. As marketers, we strive to enhance and customize the shopping experience, but we walk a fine line regarding our customers’ boundaries. Their message to us is clear; sharing data has its limits, and brands need to understand and respect those boundaries—and dig deeper into their customer segments.

Brands need to ask what their customers are comfortable with:

  • What are they willing to share both pre and post-login?
  • What types of personalization efforts are the most valuable for them?
  • How can we measure their willingness to engage with preference centers if they are robust enough and positioned in the right way?
  • Do we understand what kinds of personalization customers feel are needless, or worse, downright unsettling?
  • What motivates them to decide and/or purchase on a deeper emotional plane?

One thing I find very telling when looking at consumer preference is that, while they value their privacy, they more than likely would be willing to take a short survey to get a more personalized experience. People want experiences that are meaningful to them, as referenced in the Salesforce 2020 State of the Connected Customer report, which found that 73% of customers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations. And while they’re not always proponents of open access to personal data, they are willing to tell you what they want to attain those experiences.

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Consider tactics driven by these insights. For example:

  • Preference center and opt-down strategies allow you to reframe your customer relationships at a point when the customers wish to do so.
  • Quote engines and other tools make the consideration/shopping process more interactive, but also build a clearer picture of the customers’ needs and intent.
  • Rating systems throughout your site experience offer customers the chance to provide feedback on the relevancy of the content displayed, as customers encounter it.
  • Authentic, privacy-safe connections are a base-level requirement. 

More recently than the privacy conversation, the concept of authenticity has emerged as a common term in our marketing vocabulary. What does that mean and how do brands know if they’re succeeding in being authentic? Authenticity is a bit more subjective, but many people feel brands miss the mark in this measure.

It’s no surprise that consumers are feeling under-represented, which can lead to less engagement. Imagine if all those people felt engaged with an authentic brand? What would that do for a brand’s acquisition, conversion, and loyalty? This ties directly to having a thorough understanding of your customer base. This means taking into consideration demographic data (gender, race, ethnicity, income, etc.), but going beyond that to gain a deeper, psychographic perspective of what your customers value so you can reflect these factors in your marketing strategy.

Research also shows that when we talk about authenticity, people are looking for transparency and action. Customers want to have a relationship with brands that regularly communicate their purpose and values, not contrived when a crisis hits. HelloFresh has been very public about its continued quest for better sustainability, with regular reports on its research findings and strategy updates. Customers are also looking for brands that act in tangible ways. For example, Dunkin and its franchises set out to help first responders with donations of critical supplies and, of course, donuts and coffee.

These are undeniably challenging times, but they are affording us all a chance to re-educate ourselves about our customers and their needs as they adjust to the world around them. Understanding what makes impactful experiences for your customers, what they are willing to share to get it, and how to be a truly authentic brand in their perspective will position you for success.

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 Merkle is a performance marketing services agency.

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