How to do personal marketing without getting creepy

CMO of an AI-powered tech firm shares advice

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The demarcation between pleasingly relevant and Big Brother creepy is increasingly amorphous—and definitely in the eye of the beholder. As a consumer, you'd like to believe your personal data is protected. At the same time, most of us welcome, if not expect, the personalization that sites like Amazon and Netflix use to enhance your shopping experience. It's a fine line that more and more businesses are straddling.

But what if your company enables other marketers to push right up to that line? How do you make sure your technology is seen as a force of good? To answer this question and more, I spoke with Mark Floisand, chief marketing officer of Coveo, a company whose AI-powered search technology plugs into massive marketing platforms like Salesforce, GoogleApps, YouTube and Sitecore. For laymen, this means they enable personalization at scale, something Floisand firmly believes is not just a positive but also a prerequisite for success in the digital world.

What's the thinking behind your "Make Business Personal" tagline?

It speaks to the fact that enterprises today are having to face the reality that people are so digitally capable and have had their own expectations raised substantially as consumers in a digital age. We expect personal recommendations now. I expect a highly personalized set of interactions as a business buyer, in the same way that I would expect them as a consumer. "Making Business Personal" is really helping organizations think through what it means to make their business engaging to their consumers. It's not just nice to do, but you actually have to do it.

How do you relate the bigger message of "Make Business Personal" to all of your different marketing activities?

We're never going to be as uniquely personal in absolutely everything we do as I ideally would like. It's an aspirational bar that I think every organization will probably strain to achieve. In practice, what you should constantly be doing is using as much information as you have access to in order to make the best guess possible about what will be the most relevant to each individual. We look at the data we've assimilated from things like website interactions, search terms, what's been clicked on, what's been ignored. All of those signals from various interactions with people form a picture that can be fed into machine learning capabilities. That way, you can start to predict what content is likely to be most relevant to different folks. The irony of it is that the mantra of "make business personal" really can be applied at scale when you start taking advantage of the kind of raw computing power that exists out there, marrying with the right content to the right set of interaction data.

All marketing is about is building trust with customers. How do you make sure that personalization is actually helping customers and not just confusing things?

Companies need to keep in mind that individuals are not interacting with them for the sake of interacting with them. They want to get something done, whether it's purchasing or understanding how something works. The sooner you can get them to the answer they need, the better that interaction was for them. That's really where I think personalization plays a huge role. It's all about predicting and anticipating what customers are most likely to need next, getting it to them, and helping them along the way.

How do you combine personalization and brand consistency?

Every interaction someone has with a brand is really a step either in favor of their perception of that brand or one that detracts from it. If someone is presented with something that startles them, that may detract from the brand value. That's the same with every single interaction. The more relevant the content and the more relevant the recommendations, the more people will be enamored with your brand over time.

How do you identify what is important to a person in the purchase process?

It's putting information in front of individuals way earlier in the funnel before you actually know that they are even actively looking at you. I think that's one of the things that content marketing and more recently ABM [Account Based Marketing] and targeted placement has helped. In our case, our deal flow is typically three to six months. We have to basically keep a tally track of the interactions that people are having over that time. In doing that, you form a view of who is engaged with what, what information is being presented to them, and what they have effectively interacted with. All of this interaction data feeds into our machine learning capability to improve the recommendations that they should see next. You can't do that by hand, which is the fundamental essence of using AI capabilities. Machine learning should give a long view of handling and recommending content to each person.

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