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When Marketing Personalization Fails

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Imagine a company that addressed single women about their pending nuptials or congratulated women on their first child even though they never have been pregnant. These are just a few of the marketing snafus in over recent months by big companies (Pinterest and Shutterfly, respectively).

All the hype in marketing these days is about personalization. The idea is making every interaction highly relevant and tailored to a specific individual, based on his or her online, social or app behavior, shopping history, preferences, tastes, family and lifestyle details.

The proliferation of mobile devices has accelerated the desire by companies to personalize marketing efforts, but with embarrassing gaffs happening -- and consumers all too eager to share their experiences on social networks -- marketers need to protect themselves. Here’s four ways to do so:

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1. Cross-reference all data.

Integrate and cross-reference data from all available first-party data sources (email, customer-relationship management tools, apps and transactions) and second-party sources (social media). When dealing with subjects about which emotions run high (such as pregnancy or other life-changing events), companies should have a double-confirmation system.

Was there a status change on Facebook? Did the customer purchase related items? Did this customer change her status within a profile on the company's site? Only when there is second nod of validation, should companies use certain criteria to target a customer for the purchase of a product.

In the Pinterest case, the social site sent out emails to users who had pinned any wedding-related content but these people weren’t necessarily engaged. Some women start dreaming about a wedding day as little girls. Teens might use sites like Pinterest to save inspiration ideas for a future wedding even without a suitor yet on the horizon. Just because a person shows interest in the topic of weddings does not mean she is tying the knot.

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2. Always act in context.

To increase the chances of delivering a relevant message or experience, companies need to not only leverage the data that makes a message personal but also be sure to trigger it when it’s contextual or appropriate to a person’s immediate circumstance and intent.

The context surrounding a consumer is what's trending around her and what's viral among her peers. Using a variety of big-data tools, such as semantic and virality analysis, a company can better understand what a given person might want at a certain moment. Virality simply refers to how viral something is online, on social or other channels. This can be anything from parachute pants to Miley Cyrus.

Acting in context, a hotel would send to a 25-year-old guest in town with friends a message about an Oktoberfest beer event that's trending on Instagram and issue an alert for a symphony concert in a park to a couple in town to celebrate an anniversary.

Related: Personalized Marketing Is No Longer a Luxury

3. Learn from the past.

Create user segments based on customer behavior, interests, needs, demographics and psychographics. By segmenting and then analyzing the behavior of long-standing customers, a company can predict the actions led to certain profile attributes, such as recent marriage or being a new mother.

An over-the-counter allergy-medicine company could anticipate what additional allergies a person may experience based on long-standing customers’ shopping and in-app behavior and user-generated profiles. Thus, the company could predict that a person with a strong allergy to ragweed might be wrestling with a specific allergy rampant in a town she's visiting and provide an offer or tip.

4. Monitor sentiment in real time.

By tracking real-time feedback and chatter about a company online and applying a sentiment analysis, employees will be able to see almost immediately if a mistake has been made, enabling them to stop further damage from being done and to apologize to those affected.

If a company makes a mistake, the worst thing it can do is ignore it. During Hurricane Sandy, for instance, companies like Gap and Urban Outfitters promoted free-shipping offers to those in affected areas. These tactics quickly blew up on Twitter with harsh criticism about insensitivity. Apologies followed.

These recent high-profile personalization flops should not deter marketers from personalizing their efforts. Tailoring experiences is not a nice-to-have item. It’s a must-have in today’s customer-centric society.

Luckily, technology systems are becoming more advanced to put safeguards in place so marketers can personalize with confidence.

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