Make it personal

There is a difference between 'being personal' and 'overt recognition' - the first is better, and especially when the message suits the medium.


How brands seek to engage people is at an interesting juncture. Forces are at play that continuously change the landscape, and brands must constantly monitor and evolve their approach accordingly.

A major driving force is the richness of data that surrounds everything we do. Nearly every action we take leaves some kind of data trail in its wake - the metadata of our lives. The challenge for brands is to funnel this torrent of information into usable packets, and then to build something on the back of the information that drives value for both customers and the business. The opportunity is for a new level of personalisation - allowing the brand to complement and add value to customers' lives.

We draw a distinction in personalisation between "being personal" and "overt recognition". We believe personalisation is much more about the former: turning up at the right time, rather than overtly plastering communications with information we know about the customer.

Our work with LoveFilm uses the full depth and breadth of available customer data. Individual behaviour is closely monitored and appropriate actions are taken to ensure that each customer receives an exceptional experience. The actions here are much more than communications per se, often being rooted in product fulfilment. For example, an extra return envelope is tucked into the despatch package when two discs are being sent at once. This makes sending the discs back that little bit easier. By focusing on changing the behaviours that limit the service LoveFilm is able to offer, we enable customers to get the most out of their subscription.

With such a richness of data, it would be very easy to do things because we could, rather than because we should. We agree with Seth Godin on building permission. "The biggest asset a company can build online is this privilege: the list of people who would miss you if you didn't show up."

Ultimately, all the use of data outlined above is simply trying to herd cats if your customers don't like you and don't want to hear from you. It's now perfectly possible to build a meaningful relationship (ie. one that is deeper than purely transactional) on a one-to-one basis using various social channels - by playing nicely where your customers are already playing.

How do you play nicely and build permission? By acting with generosity and parking the sales pitch for a bit. If the brand can be useful, interesting or entertaining (or preferably a combination of all three), then people will like you that little bit more. And that is a powerful thing. If I like you, I'm more likely to do business with you when that conversation comes to the table. By building permission, you are building the right to present your sales.

Now we have "tamed the firehose" of data to be more personal and built some interesting "stuff" to engender a deeper relationship, we're still left with the potential to mess things up with sloppy execution. Our principle of integration - brand action - takes motivating ideas and flexes them to the context of the various methods of communication.

Not surprisingly, the principles of how to do this in "paid for" media also apply to the social world - content should be tailored to its context.

As an example, we have a mutual friend who is prolific on Twitter. We both also befriended him on Facebook. But the content he produces is identical on both. Using a third-party API service (such as Tweetdeck or Hootsuite), he cross-posts his Tweets into Facebook. And the content that is fine and welcome in the Twitter environment feels like nonsensical spam on Facebook. This is the social media equivalent of putting identical ads in press and on billboards - it's not tailored to its context and so it fails to work as hard as it could.

Recent research published by Edgerank Checker shows that updating pages via third-party APIs reduces engagement (comments and "likes") per fan by about 80 per cent on average. Its theories of why this happens fall into two basic categories: the way Facebook processes such updates (the Edgerank algorithm) penalises them in the stream; and they are not optimised for consumption on Facebook.

Related findings have been reported by the web technology blog ReadWriteWeb, whose community manager accidentally duplicated posts to Facebook - one personally submitted, the other automated. He found that the former received around 2.5 times the number of views on the social network than the latter.

Furthermore, Zach Seward, who manages The Wall Street Journal's Twitter account, has had a similar experience when shifting to a more human approach to Tweeting. "Human-powered feeds do much, much better than automated ones, by any relevant metric," he says.

The extent to which these results are to do with algorithms or with readers' perception of the updates is moot. Given the personal example cited earlier, I suspect that they both play substantial roles - a Facebook update full of "RT" and "@" just feels a bit weird. The same applies to a Twitter stream that is automatically generating links to a post elsewhere.

Regardless of the specific causes, the conclusion from this evidence is that taking the time and effort to put a personal touch on how you interact with people via various social media is worth it in terms of engagement and additional page views, and so on. Facebook and Twitter are fundamentally different spaces and brands must adapt their language's content, grammar and syntax appropriately.

The opportunities for brands are bountiful. We have more data available than we can realistically use, but by working out which bits are important, we can craft an engaging customer experience. We can develop meaningful relationships; we just need to remember to park the sales pitch every now and then. And, of course, we need to put the effort in to make sure we optimise the way we deliver our content.

Surprise, surprise, the easy way is less effective.

James Devon is the planning director and James Middlehurst is the managing partner of MBA


  • Tame the firehose of data to build a more personal approach.
  • Build permission by being useful, interesting and entertaining to engage people in the social space.
  • Execute with precision, tailoring communications according to the context in which they will be received. Putting the effort in to being human beats just appearing human.

From Campaign's What next in engagement supplement Novemeber 2011


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