Keeping the Personal in Personality Marketing

It’s remarkable to me that the more data we gather about the individual, the less personal the experience gets. The wealth of information we’re able to collect and apply to customers and potential customers is staggering, and it’s improving at a blistering pace. We, meaning data-driven marketers, are now able to glean insights into users in ways we never thought possible. Pixels are able to expose breadcrumb trails like never before, audience-building tools have become more sophisticated than ever, and we’re able to serve ads and target customers in such specific ways that it’s even become intimidating for some users. Just think about something and – boom – it’s in your Facebook newsfeed. But even with the embarrassment of riches a marketer has access to in 2018, we’ve somehow lost sight of the fact that your audience is more than just rows in a table. Much like the “uncanny valley” renders robots too uncomfortably human, human marketers have become uncomfortably robotic.

“Love their products, hate the company”

One of my favorite stories comes from my first year running a business that I’d considered viable. We had our first major client, and we were handed the keys to all of their marketing efforts. As usual, we employed our data-gathering and analytics techniques, coming up with a segmentation model we were able to execute on. But amid all of our success, we screwed up something so simple: one of our recurring campaigns had an “unsubscribe” button that didn’t work. Inevitably, complaints started coming in, and we fixed the problem in a matter of hours. Still, some damage was done, and a reviewer on the client’s website told us as much. To summarize her review; she had been a longtime fan of the brand, but would never shop again because she was unable to stop the solicitations and felt as though she was being harassed. I admittedly didn’t read the site reviews often, and stumbled upon this one about a month later. I felt personally responsible for the error, and this woman had left her email address. I did something that I had never done before – I emailed her to personally apologize. I pondered what to say, keeping in mind the fact that this could backfire if it sounded too much like a solicitation, so before sending the email I settled on a list of rules to follow.

If you make a mistake, be honest about it.

We’re all people. At every company on Earth, there is some actual human being pressing the “send” or “schedule” button for every email campaign that has ever been sent. At the very least, there is an actual human being, with eyes and feelings and such, monitoring the communication. I felt very upset about the experience this customer had, beyond just “doing my job”. On the other end, there is an annoyed person who will probably respond better to honesty than some corporate-sounding excuse. Life is long. We all screw up.

Leave out the solicitation.

I thought about this for a long time. Originally, I was going to include in the email a promo code for 50% off her next purchase. I eventually realized that would make my effort sound a) desperate, b) disingenuous and c) like a form letter that I stuck her name on.

“Hey, [F-NAME], sorry we messed up! Use code SORRY50 at checkout for 50% off your next order!”

Come on.

Keep it short, and conclude by typing your name and contact information instead of just slapping on a signature with a link to your website.

I didn’t even work for the client I was writing on behalf of, but I introduced myself as their Marketing Director and left my cell phone number at the bottom of the email. This doesn’t sound like much, but it made the email seem more “raw”, and reinforced the notion that I actually sat there and typed it out. Maybe the cell phone number was a bit too far (as you’ll see in a second), but I wanted this woman to feel like I was just some guy sitting at a desk, eating chips with YouTube open on another tab (which I was).

If possible, have the communication come from someone with rank within the company, not a call center employee.

I mean no offense to call center employees, but their job is to provide quick, typically impersonal customer service. If a customer has a bad experience, knowing someone went outside of their job description to follow up with them can go a long way.

“You’re actually a real person?”

I fired off the email and forgot about it. A few days later, my phone rings and I answered with just “hello”.

“Oh, you’re actually a real person,” a woman’s voice said back.

I responded with, “as far as I can tell, yes – who am I speaking with?”

(I chose this response over my other go-to in this situation: “perhaps I am, but also maybe life is but a simulation and the concept of real or fake people is just an artificial construct.”)

She introduced herself as the woman I had emailed, and I again apologized and told her I was personally embarrassed and felt terrible about her experience. After a brief, but positive, conversation, she told me she was taken aback by the fact that she got such a personal response to a comment she left in passing. A few weeks later, she purchased again, and left a comment recounting this story. That comment is still there and I have it bookmarked. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look at it from time to time.

Since that experience, I make it a point to run through feedback that our clients receive and if I notice comments or messages that hint at a mistake we could easily rectify, I contact the customers who left them. If I can’t personally get to it, I send the name and contact information to a representative at the client, and instruct them to reach out. Will this backfire sometimes? Sure, especially depending on the circumstance. It’s also not lost on me that complaints can be frivolous, and large companies may not have the bandwidth to reach out to every single person who complains. But I like to think there is a net-benefit to old school, one-on-one outreach to resolve a problem.

Keep in mind that you aren’t marketing to ones and zeroes. Those databases are filled with people who get up in the morning and brush their teeth. They drive to work. They call companies like Comcast to yell about their cable bills, just like you and me. And as marketers, and especially as business owners, we have a responsibility to walk the fine line between solicitation and harassment. We can’t always control the experience with a tangible product, but at the very least we can, when necessary, remind those names in our database that there is someone who actually reads their feedback and cares, and that we aren’t just faceless algorithm-generators.