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Avoiding the Big Data Creepy Factor

As marketers look to build customer relationships, they need to look at how they can save themselves from turning their hard earned brand image into a creepy one.

The power of big data has unlocked many new opportunities for businesses, and many have obvious benefits for consumers, but they also give marketers more ways to be creepy.  According to Marketing Dive, 75% of consumers find many forms of marketing personalization creepy, and 22% of them report having left a brand because of it.  As marketers look to build, not damage, customer relationships and their brands, they need to look at how they can save themselves from turning their hard earned brand image into a creepy one.

When even Facebook thinks something is creepy, you know a line has been crossed.  Well, probably many, many lines.  Last month the facial recognition software company Clearview AI received cease and desist letters after scraping more than 3 billion photos off of Facebook, Twitter, Venmo, and other commonly used sites which effectively undermines the value of their informed consent policies.  If you are looking to be creeped out, read this New York Times article on what they are doing with your photos.  It is a powerful example of why we need federal data privacy legislation.

What Can Your Business Do?

Here are 7 things businesses and marketers can do to help protect their brand from crossing the creepy barrier.

Personalization is Not Individualization

Do not unnecessarily showcase the depth of knowledge about an individual customer in your marketing communications.  Create personalized campaigns without identifying them personally unless necessary.  Focus on personalization that has an obvious purpose and that is perceived as valuable by the customer.  Avoid personalization utilizing sensitive topics or those that make them feel as if they are being watched outside of an engagement the customer initiates.

Respect Channel Choices

Avoid using channels for personalized communication that were not provided to you by the customer.  If they were just on your website and you call them 30 seconds later with a phone number you obtained from a 3rd party data provider, it is creepy.

Set Clear Expectations

Be clear about what data you are collecting and how it will (and will not) be used.  Avoid legalese and long-winded terms of service and privacy policies.  Keep your uses within the posted privacy policy and build in a second layer of uses that need special approvals despite being permissible within the set expectations and the law.  If you are Uber and you are using data to identify men and women who have had a one night stand, or the location of journalists it is creepy.

Limit Risks

Spotify adUnless it is the core focus of your business, ban the data collection, creation, and use of sensitive and potentially discriminatory data such as: mental health, physical health, sexual preferences, sexual behaviors, religion, race, ethnic origin, political affiliation, firearm ownership, union membership, biometrics, etc.  If you are Spotify and you are calling out mental health concerns on a billboard because someone listened to some sad songs (not to actually help them), it is creepy.

Be Reasonable

Do not collect, create, buy, or license data that you are not going to use or that you would be embarrassed to have to explain.  This includes avoiding sensitive and highly private topics.  Consider flagging necessary but sensitive data points that are not allowed to be used for audience targeting or personalization.  If you are reminding people about a death in the family or their own imminent demise, it is creepy.

Be Protective

creepy marketingCustomers are the lifeblood of every company so treat them as such.  Go above and beyond to protect vulnerable audiences such as minors and the elderly.  Protect your brand identity by not associating your data collection and usage with negative marketing, divisive or hateful content, etc.  If you’re Target and you are targeting pregnant minors, it is creepy.

Get New Idea Feedback

Create an informal sounding board to bounce new ideas off of, to make sure you aren’t missing any social, racial, gender or other potential marketing landmines.  These people should not be part of your marketing team bubble.  If your company has a diversity club, that is a good place to start.

Big data is undoubtedly the future of marketing, and it is what powers A.I., so the opportunities for unintended misuse and abuse have already started and will continue to multiply.  As marketers look to improve the customer experience and their marketing effectiveness, they will need to develop guidelines for their business and industry, even within what is legally permissible, to avoid being the next business to be branded as creepy.

For more on Marketing IQ’s Data Strategy Services click here.


Marc ShullMarc Shull founded Marketing IQ in 2009.  Over the last 20+ years, Marc has worked with businesses ranging from regional non-profits to large multi-national corporations across a diverse set of industries including Visa, Party City, Aetna, Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, General Mills, Miller Coors, P&G, eBay, Intel, Prudential Capital Group, Polska Grupa Farmaceutyczna, Domino’s, Safeway, and Wal-Mart.


This article originally appeared in Marketing IQ. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

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