Monday, July 9, 2012

The Unified Field Theory of Creepy

When marketers discuss using consumer data to drive content or offers in addressable communications such as email, apps or on-site messages, sooner or later the word “creepy” comes up.  Front-and-center stand such examples as the New York Times’s infamous “father learns of daughter’s pregnancy via direct mail” article.

However, even ordinary consumers in ordinary situations may feel that a marketer has violated some form of privacy when it reveals too much about what it knows in an email or SMS.

My former colleague Tim Suther used to use this image as a prime example of when marketers use data that they shouldn’t

We all agree that we want to avoid creepiness, but I don’t think we marketers, as a group, have established a working definition of creepy.  While no one would deny the creepiness of the lubricant example above, would an offer for sports equipment or kitchenware have raised an eyebrow?  How can we create a standard for what kinds of data are off-limits?  

In another dimension--time--how long can a marketer hold onto data without looking like a stalker?  I suspect that most consumers wouldn’t think twice about seeing items browsed the previous day in the “recently browsed items” column of a retail site.  However, would that customer look askance at the column if it featured something browsed a month ago?  Three months ago?  A year?

My favorite football columnist, Gregg Easterbrook, has coined the term “the Unified Field Theory of Creep” to parody the tendency of retailers to move all holidays forward, such as when Target puts out back-to-school merchandise in early July.  So I suggest, ladies and gentlemen, a Unified Field Theory of Creepy.

In reality, the Unified Field Theory of Creepy has two potential answers, a long and accurate one and a quick-and-dirty one.  In the spirit of pedants everywhere, I shall of course explain the long and accurate one first.

Long and Accurate

Test.  OK, actually, the long and accurate answer has a much easier explanation.  Your consumers will reject uses of data that seem too invasive, so a marketer can simply test his or her way into an answer of what constitutes creepy.  Of course, this approach requires more than just watching what makes consumers click, dwell, view or buy (depending on what measures constitute success), but also what makes consumers defect.

To use email as an example, the marketer would need to watch unsubscribe and complaint rates as well as clickthrough rates.  A marked uptick in unsubscribe and/or complaint rates would indicate a dangerous tendency to alienate some consumers, which might in turn result in substantial loss in revenue or visitation over time.  In a systematic approach, a marketer could determine which data drive content and offers that maximize engagement or conversion while minimizing disengagement.

However, as Otter said in “Animal House,” “that could take years and cost millions of lives.”


Shame on you if you skipped the preceding section!

To define the Unified Field Theory of Creepy, I make this suggestion: ask yourself if the data you plan to use would make for acceptable dinner table conversation with non-family members present (for my WASP readers, kindly ask the nearest Italian or Jew why I specify “with non-family members”).

Here’s the idea: no one would think twice if you talked about what you did earlier that day at the dinner table.  Even, perhaps, talking about events two days or a week prior might make sense, especially if you all hadn’t sat down together in while.  However, if you started the conversation by saying “on March 14th of 2011,” your mom would have you tested for Asperger’s Syndrome.

Similarly, your sister could speak about her trip to Victoria’s Secret, but she probably would get a funny look if she mentioned her bra size.  And dad would ask her to leave the table if she began talking about her favorite styles of panties.

Marketers should use the dinner-table test as the Unified Field Theory of Creepy.  Asking simply “would I talk about this issue over dinner” serves as a simple way to determine whether data would seem creepy if used.  If you have your own tests for defining creepiness, please share in the comments below.

And, for Pete’s sake, if you invite Father Joe over for Sunday dinner, don’t ask him for funny anecdotes about communion wafers.

No comments:

Post a Comment