Emails advertising racy services can be easily explained as the evil designs of a jealous ex or cranky neighbor. Those that advertise services or products that you’ve never dreamed of using – and can honestly swear you’ve never signed up for, even accidentally while checking out some really cool (and free) videos — aren’t so simple to write off.

Like it or not, all those boilerplate assurances about your email address never being sold or lent to other companies can’t be totally believed. In theory, all it takes is subscribing to a single email list and it stands to reason that somebody, somewhere will get ahold of your contact information and appropriate it for their own purposes. Even though you never ever Googled what “enhancement” means. Or how much it costs. Or whether it actually works. Or lasts.

Which begs the question: When do consumers begin pulling the plug on all email marketing, turning “unsubscribe” into a reflex action that happens before your lovely Photoshop or Flash ad has even had a chance to download? Isn’t it time to re-think email marketing and contextual advertising – before consumers flee en masse, never to return?

Junky is as junky does

Like its snail mail cousin, junk email – which may as well be defined as any email pushing a commercial interest that you’d rather not have to waste the time deleting, even unread – can overwhelm users to the point that they simply stop noticing anything that doesn’t have a friendly and familiar return address. When there’s too much of a bad thing, even the couple of items that glitter have a hard time standing out as diamonds in the rough.

The answer seems obvious, so let’s just stop there for a moment: Marketers need to take the necessary steps to figure out who wants to receive which kinds of communication (if any). And then concentrate their efforts on giving each individual customer what he or she wants and needs, not just what a particular zip code demographic suggests might be of interest.

That said, let’s toss those marketing plans – mostly of the snail-mail variety, but email campaigns are guilty in their own ways, too — that use a playful font and your first name to give the impression that someone actually took the time to write every single customer a personal love note. Which is a little like, a year or so before the Age of Unbelief, hearing the guy who plays Santa Claus at the Christmas theme park guess the top items on your list, supposedly unprompted. You know now how he did it. At the time, though, you couldn’t help feeling that someone sold you out. Plus it’s just plain creepy when a codger in a red suit, reeking of eggnog, knows which toys you want.

“We have the technology….”

What about Big Data? Companies that have the right high-powered machinery can sift, in a matter of minutes sometimes, through every public move you’ve ever made. From clicks on certain web pages to credit card receipts that show which designer jeans you purchased six months ago (and are probably tired of now, hence the email teasing out this season’s designer jeans) to what you wrote on someone’s Facebook wall. Five minutes ago. And should have already deleted.

Trouble is, the words “human” and “algorithm” don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. Make an offhand comment about somebody being uptight and needing to loosen up – by, say, having a beer — and an algorithm-generated ad for the latest local microbrew could pop up on your friend’s newsfeed. Or liquor delivery service. Or possibly the newest invention for loosening tight objects. Which feels oh-so-personal in many of the wrong ways.

Small price to pay when the upside of Big Data seems so strong, you say? Maybe. Then again, it pays to remember the old adage that good reputations are hard to get but easy to lose. And bad reputations vice versa. Why risk even one boneheaded move to a customer you’ve already been lucky enough to convert?

Some ideas:

  • Let the customer get as specific as they choose
    If they wish to opt out of all communication, make that easy and guilt-free. And then mean it. Should a customer prefer to receive at least some form of communication – like when various brands of designer jeans go on sale – use the functions of Big Data to make that possible. With no added announcements about complimentary belts. Or even the company’s charity run/walk 5K. If, however, the customer wants to be e-blasted about everything under the sun, make that an equally doable option.
  • Don’t gather data; encourage its disclosure
    If the brainiacs behind Big Data have gotten us this far, they surely can take us a step or two in a different, potentially just as useful, direction. Why not provide easy access to customers – accompanied by the offer of a meaningful coupon, like 20% off or a one-time $25 discount for every $50 spent – in exchange for consumers providing a minimal amount of information? Each customer could have their own page and be required to answer half a dozen questions about likes and interests. Then, should they choose, customers could keep coming back providing as much information as they’d like, possibly with even more incentives along the way. The incentives would need to be tied to meaningful purchases – you’re allowed a favorite category in which to apply your discount – and the results would need to be verified as making sense and not merely auto-filled or answered with gibberish just to take advantage of a deal. Leave all that to the brainiacs. It’s personal, tailored info that you’re after here. So are your interested customers.
  • Narrow down the social dynamics and get creative
    If the phrase “he can taste victory” generates a social media ad for wine tasting, someone hasn’t done enough homework. And the parameters for automatically triggering such an ad placement certainly don’t seem very well thought out, either. On the other hand, such an ad might not be all that unwelcome if the headline and appearance are both playful enough to look more serendipitous than calculating. A football widow might find such an ad appealing, regardless of whether the word “taste” was used. Especially if the ad showed up on Sunday afternoons, just before 5 o’clock. But to find out who those football widows are, you’d need more Big Data, right?

Not necessarily. You’d need reliable data, however big and bad or small and fuzzy it might turn out to be. The kind of data that still comes from working hard, chasing down leads, attending to detail and organizing bits of information into a humanly logical picture.

Which means taking the time and making the effort to seriously understand your customers. Not simply their data, but who they are, what they need and what they want.

Do that successfully – by merging the wonders of technology with the application of some old-fashioned shoe leather – and you may just make a customer for life. Bungle it by relying on a machine to tell your customers something they know is irrelevant (not to mention ridiculous), and you’ve just alienated someone in at least two ways: the source of the information, and the medium through which it traveled.

Both of which point straight back to you-know-whom.

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