Smarter Social Personalization

Social Media
Creeping Toward Smarter Social Personalization

""Because personalized content is so effective, some brands have begun using the tactic carelessly. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.""

People are unique.

Our distinct physiologies, psychologies, life experiences, and the preferences that emerge from it all, stack up and interact to make each of us not wholly but meaningfully different from one another. In short: We’re not merely members of groups. We’re individuals.

So it’s little wonder that personalization has brushed aside segmentation to become the tactic de rigueur in marketing. And less wonder still that social media – with its abundance of cost-effective and precise targeting capabilities – has become a primary avenue for delivering personalized content to customers. 

Not coincidentally, some of the biggest brands in the world are the most effective practitioners. Consider Netflix. The brand has utilized its recommendation engine, and Facebook’s API, to seamlessly deliver alerts, updates, and recommendations to individual social followers about shows and movies they might be interested in watching. The results speak for themselves.

Expedia is less technologically sophisticated than Netflix, but consistently retargets users who’ve expressed interest in a trip – building urgency, and giving prospective vacationers another chance to click.

The formula for personalization success is straightforward: More engaging posts (56% of CMOs report higher response and engagement rates with personalized content) generate more leads and conversions – while improving relevance scores and driving down ad costs on platforms like Facebook – all culminating in a richer ROI for brands.

According to recent research from Monetate, 83% of organizations that exceed revenue goals have a dedicated personalization budget in place.

Canny personalization creates a virtuous cycle of engagement/affinity/action that connects customers with brands they trust and products and services that make their lives easier – and gets people like you and me promoted. But the picture isn’t always so rosy. There’s a downside (and, in many ways, a dark side) to personalization that, if unchecked, threatens to derail the practice.

Just because personalized messages are possible – and, again, effective – many brands discharge them carelessly and inappropriately. When you have a hammer, to borrow an old expression, everything looks like a nail. This tendency has precipitated a crisis of confidence in the digital marketing industry, and in the individual brands themselves.


Much of consumers’ growing unease with personalization rests on high-level concerns about the collection and instrumentalization of their data. That’s an issue too big to unpack in this space, but suffice it to say it’s a tension that’s here to stay. (What happens when an unstoppable force – the high ROI and increasing sophistication of digital personalization – meets an immovable object – the fact that actual customers really loathe it? Open Instagram to find out!) This said, there’s a lower-level consumer concern that we as digital marketers can address today: Individual personalized ads are often plain weird and creepy.

Women who don’t know they are pregnant yet are served ads for maternity products. Brands you’ve never heard of address you by name. And worse.

A simple Twitter search of “creepy” and “personalization” provides a tidy snapshot of the problem: Customers complaining about being weirded out, marketers talking to themselves about how to be less weird.

Here’s our contribution to the conversation. The below principles reflect our approach to personalization, and how we’ve managed to build personal relationships with large social communities without alienating individual members.

Rule 1: Understand your brand

Some companies have a largely transactional relationship with their customers. Contrary to what often passes as the conventional marketing wisdom, that’s fine. Some customers aren’t interested in developing rich and emotionally salient experiential ties with you; they just need their tires rotated.

A few organizations, however, play deeper roles in the interior lives and identities of their customers. Wawa, whose social media channels we manage here at Archer, is a prime example. The brand’s customers have longstanding relationships with not just the individual employees in the stores, and not only the individual stores themselves, but with the Wawa brand writ large. This makes familiar, personalized messages not only effective, but welcome. Customers feel flattered to be recognized by @Wawa and spoken to as friends, whether it’s in the form of a targeted ad or a comment on a recent social post of theirs. Through smart targeting, active listening, and a full quiver of additional social strategies, we’ve created a large and passionate group of fans – many of whom feel a personal connection with the brand. It’s among the reasons Wawa had the highest level of social engagement of any convenience store in 2018, according to Convenience Store Decisions 2019 Awards.

But Wawa is the exception, not the rule. Successful personalization, in most instances, is less about building an emotional bond with customers, and more about facilitating a tailored, intuitive, and convenient user experience.

Ask yourself what kind of brand you are, and be honest about what degree of personal connection is possible with your users. Anchor your personalization strategy in your customer relationship goals.

Rule 2: Understand your audience

Most consumers find personalization discomfiting, but when you zoom in the picture becomes more complicated. Owing largely to the digital environment they were raised in, there’s some evidence that GenZ customers (born after the mid-90s) are less concerned with digital privacy and more receptive to personalized ad messages.

There’s a lesson in this. If you’re speaking with a younger audience, it could be productive to test personalization tactics more aggressively. Today, we can define and target audiences and individuals based on where they shop, how they’re using the brand’s app, what type of content they tend to engage with on social or the brand’s website, and much more.

If your organization is not currently personalizing much on social, this is a great starting point: Create targeted messages for GenZ audiences based on simple facts about how they’ve interacted with your brand. Let’s say Brian preorders a Macchiato on your app most mornings, and follows a lot of self-help and personal empowerment influencers on social. You could create a targeted Instagram post for him that pairs the Macchiato with your new high-protein breakfast bar, and position it as the new way to #poweryourmorning.

Rule 3: Understand the context and the individual

Ask yourself if the customer(s) you’re targeting have a real relationship with the brand.

Do they know you? Have they interacted with you before on the platform? Have they shared your content or shared an enthusiasm for it?

Also consider the nature of the products or services you’re marketing. It can feel unsettling when a technology company or healthcare provider knows too much about you, because they can use that information in ways that don’t necessarily align with your best interests. Fine-grained personalization can serve as an unproductive reminder of this dynamic. Conversely, there’s not much downside to your favorite lunch spot knowing what your favorite sandwich is.

With this in mind, practice empathy when you’re making personalized messaging decisions. If you find a message unnervingly familiar – so much so that you wouldn’t deliver it in person, yourself – think long and hard before you push publish.

Personalization has opened up, and will continue to open up, enormous and enormously profitable opportunities for marketers and brands. But effective personalization requires a care and a tactfulness that isn’t always practiced.

Since Google has retired its “Don’t be evil” mission statement, allow us to humbly propose an alternative for social marketers in 2019.

Don’t be creepy.