Creepy or Cool? Three Ways to Honor eCommerce Privacy While Delivering Relevance

August 18, 2016

As personalization technologies become more pervasive, the line that divides creepy from cool is difficult to discern. But as merchants gear up to experiment with new tactics for the holidays, they must strive to stay on the right side of that eCommerce privacy line, or risk repercussions that last into 2017 and beyond.

Shoppers’ attitudes toward personalization and privacy have always been contradictory. Expectations for relevance are high — more than half expect to be recognized across touchpoints with personalized messages and more than a third say they’re frustrated when past interactions with merchants aren’t factored into marketing messages. But at the same time, 41 percent say that no incentive would motivate them to sacrifice their personal information, and more than a quarter have used ad blockers or “do not track” browser settings to avoid marketing messages.

To navigate this conundrum, merchants must wield their personalization powers with nuance and transparency. A flexible eCommerce platform that enables custom privacy messaging and the ability to adapt signup, opt-out, and checkout routines to prevailing best practices is the foundation on which merchants can build shopping experiences that tailor to shoppers, without raising the red flags that signal privacy invasion. A few guidelines:

The red flag: Unrelated offers from unfamiliar brands
The solution: Pledging —  and keeping —  strict data control

Whether the perception is accurate or not, consumers believe that consenting to share some information leads to a flood of spam offers from merchants they don’t know for products they don’t need. When Pew Research asked whether a shopper would sign up for a retail loyalty program that tracked purchases and shared data with third parties in exchange for discount offers, 47 percent of consumers said such a tradeoff was acceptable —  but voiced concerns primarily about the “third party.” As one participant put it:

Sharing it with a third party generally indicates that you will be inundated with unwelcome email offers and you may even get unwanted calls.”

To combat this concern, merchants should keep their data to themselves and avoid using rented or other third-party lists. Data practices should be communicated transparently and prominently at multiple points of engagement and information exchange across screens and touchpoints.

Kibo merchant Armani Exchange limits its email signup window to a single required field and includes an explanation that data will be used solely to send email newsletters. The text also notes that information will be kept safe and secure. Shoppers can optionally personalize messages by selecting their gender, but no further demographic information is collected.

The red flag: Unreasonably persistent messaging
The solution: Timely data hygiene

While shoppers may consent to limited-time offers from merchants, their signup doesn’t signal carte blanche to message them in perpetuity on every available touchpoint. Merchants should keep the timeframe short for winnowing lists and dialing down the cadence of marketing alerts. Among the techniques:

  • After the holidays, give shoppers easy access to opt-down and other account preference tools. Gift seekers who may have signed on for one particular promotion may or may not want to stick around for year-round offers, so by all means entice them to stay on the list, but make sure they can control their data destiny.
  • Limit the scope and duration of retargeting campaigns. Ads promoting products consumers have perused without purchasing are among the techniques consumers perceive as ultra-creepy —  especially when those offers follow them endlessly from site to site. Merchants should keep a close eye on the frequency and timing of these offers and set a maximum number of ad exposures to avoid oversaturation.

The red flag: Getting too personal too soon
The solution: Let shoppers set the pace

While shoppers expect to receive relevant offers, they’re wary when personalization leads to over-familiarity they didn’t invite. Promotions based on aggregate data or browsing behavior is one thing; offers that suggest merchants have insight into personal information unrelated to shopping activity is another. Merchants should not only collect only the information they need and seek consent to do so, but they should give shoppers the ability to tap personalized offers at their own pace. To do so:

  • Use in-store beacons to deliver discounts, not stalk shoppers. Beacons that detect when shoppers are in stores can help merchants deliver offers that are geographically relevant and timely —  functionality 40 percent of consumers would welcome. But for two-thirds of shoppers, using that same technology to send a store associate to hail them by name would cross the line.
  • Over-communicate the basis for recommendations. Using aggregate customer reviews to create categories of top-rated items and displaying cross-sells based on what others who viewed the product also bought (a la Amazon) are ways to tap shoppers’ behavior without setting off over-familiarity red flags. And merchants can present individualized recommendations by clearly labeling how those products were selected — for example, “based on your recent purchases,” “based on what you’ve browsed, we thought you’d like these” and so on.

How do you avoid creeping customers out while delivering relevant offers?