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Monday, January 17, 2005
Personalizing, My Ass
No, not this sort of thing -- note the position of the comma in the title, please.

Advertisers love the word "personalization," particularly in the context of online advertising where everything is handled by machines -- often tied to a database of information about the individual being targeted -- and the costs of personalization are therefore relatively low. Unfortunately, these advertisers also frequently have sad little ideas of what constitutes personalization.

Let's take eBay as our victim for this discussion. I've purchased items from eBay quite a few times over the last few years: at the very least they have a reasonable amount of data on the sorts of things that I bid on and buy, and they probably have a lot more information than that.

What does eBay do with that information? Well, in the last month they've sent me several emails promoting offers that are of absolutely no interest to me. Apparently I was supposed to respond positively to those emails because they were "personalized" with the account name that I use for eBay:

Dear eBay2002, these emails begin, as though I'll see that and get a warm and fuzzy feeling that someone at eBay is actually sitting down and writing an email to me -- person to person -- because that eBay employee thinks that I'd be interested in buying jewelery for someone as a holiday gift.

It's mind boggling. What benefit does this "personalization" offer me? I already know that eBay knows my account ID and email address, and I don't care. The fact that they can pull this information from a database and slap it into a bulk email doesn't impress me in the slightest: the content of the email that they're sending to me is still totally generic, reflecting nothing about my interests or history with eBay.

I've purchased computer equipment and peripherals, work by and about cartoonists like Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, New York City transit memorabilia, and a host of other items...if they're going to send me email promoting things that they've got for sale, why is eBay not sending me emails about stuff that I might have some possibility of actually buying?

The answer is probably twofold. First, eBay can already say that they're sending "personalized" email, and it would be a lot more complicated to start targeting and sending truly personalized emails. Since their practices are already buzzword-compliant, there's little incentive to invest time and money in making them work better. The second issue is a horribly common mindset when it comes to email: advertisers and marketers often don't think about sending email "messages" to their clients or subscribers, but rather in terms of sending email "blasts" out to a faceless, undifferentiated list, on a schedule determined by the marketing department.

Because it's about as cheap and easy to send out 10,000 or 100,000 email messages as it is to send 100 or 1,000 messages, it's easy to just "send them all and see what sticks;" without a significant financial disincentive, marketers default to mailing more rather than mailing intelligently. "List segmentation" sounds like something complicated and difficult, but it really just amounts to thinking about the people you're trying to communicate with. Showing some interest in and respect for those people. Remembering that there's an individual attached to that email address.
This has always been a peeve of mine as well. I mean, when I write email to dozens of people each week - I never use old school salutations like "Dear blah". To me, the "Dear" part already indicates that this person doesn't *really* know me. I think if you have a legitimate customer relationship, you should ditch the formal salutation and treat the customer as though you know them. "Tom," would be just fine. Of course this presumes, as you say, that their data is complete and wasn't improperly addended.
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