'Dear Rich Bastard'? How to Keep Humanity in Your Personalization Strategy

Avoiding the 'Dear Rich Bastard' Mistake and Other Catastrophes

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Not really how the mailing looked. But it did say 'Dear Rich Bastard.'
Not really how the mailing looked. But it did say 'Dear Rich Bastard.'

As we move further in wielding the power of personalization in marketing, let's always remember the inherent risk. Case in point: the story of British Telecom's promotion for a "gold" calling card nearly 25 years ago, in which it inadvertently personalized some of its mailings with "Dear Rich Bastard." This urban legend has been circulating for years, but as a young account executive who worked on the business, I can now confess it is no legend.

Unbeknown to British Telecom -- or the agency I was working at -- a rogue operator at the data bureau had replaced the default salutation with "Dear Rich Bastard," just for fun. Unfortunately for British Telecom, the default made it out the door and into the homes of 10 potential customers.

One recipient was surprisingly delighted with the approach and even signed up for the card, as it turned out when the mortified head of marketing at British Telecom called each "rich bastard" the weekend of the mailing. The other nine presumably represented the rule, so to speak: If you misuse data in order to "personally" connect with consumers, you have committed an unforgivable offense.

And while this event happened long ago, its lesson is even more relevant today. With our growing ability to track all online behavior and consumers' growing ability to take very loud offense, marketers daily face "Dear Rich Bastard" moments on a whole new level.

Two more modern personalization disaster stories have made the rounds recently, both targeting women around pregnancy. Both campaigns crossed the line when it came to over personalization and misuse of data.

Shutterfly decided to send a congratulatory note to moms on the birth of their child. Many of the consumers who received the note (some of them men) took to social channels to complain or make jokes about their privacy.

But the worst offense was to women who were either struggling to have a child or had miscarried. So, obviously some of the data was off. Apparently there were no checks and balances in place, or the ones in place didn't work. That is the kind of personalization error that will never be forgiven or forgotten by those women, and a risk not worth taking. Shutterfly issued an apology to those it had inadvertently offended, but the damage was done and the brand was tainted.

The Target story is slightly more amusing. It tells of a dad who went to Target to complain that the store was sending his teen daughter coupons for baby products. After all, his daughter wasn't pregnant. Much to his surprise, he soon found out otherwise.

Can you see the dilemma? The misuse of his daughter's data, accurate or not, stepped over the line into being creepy. No one wants to believe a marketer knows more about their child than they do.

But these examples are just the beginning, no matter how careful most of us are. Big data provides the opportunity to overreach -- and unless common sense and humanity are also added to the process, such overreaching could soon be a common occurrence.

Here are a few ways to ensure marketers maintain their human touch and avoid catastrophes:

1. Be clear on the risks and rewards of taking a personalization approach.

2. Develop a clear set of business rules with real-life examples to bring the rules to life, and have the rules reviewed and OK'd by all stakeholders.

3. Make sure you see examples of the personalization in pilots before you use the approach on a big scale.

4. Put checks and balances in place to ensure that your systems and processes are operating effectively, and continue to do so. Beware the rogue or unthinking employee.

5. Develop a risk mitigation plan. If you don't have one, that is a problem and an indication you might want to take a step back.

6. Watch your audience's response to the communications, and listen to their input.

7. Create a research overlay to ensure you are not just brand-driven but consumer-driven as well. A balanced approach makes personalization more acceptable.

As the U.S. moves from mostly mass marketing to a more personalized approach, the next generation of marketers needs to learn that there is more to personalization than mining data. Brands need to invest in training their teams and applying the right amount of common sense and humanity to data and new technologies. Otherwise, we're in for a series of personalization disasters that can dramatically harm beloved brands. Then it will be time for the consumer to send marketers some "Dear Rich Bastard" letters of their own.

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