Time for a pop quiz. What do products in Romanian supermarkets, DNA-based facial serums, and running shoes have in common?
Think about it for a minute.
OK. Pencils down. If you guessed that they are all gifts on our wish list this holiday season, you’d be right.
But that’s not what we want to talk about today. They are all offerings that their sellers personalize for their buyers. Especially in the age of big data, more and more marketing and sales appeals are based on personalizing content to its intended recipients.
Why is personalization so effective for sales and marketing? It turns out there is solid science behind why it works — and when it doesn’t. What’s the science behind it?
Let’s look at the evidence.
There is a long history behind selling things to people based on the specifics of who they are. In ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle wrote about personalization, saying: “Things which are akin and like are always pleasant to one another, and every person in the highest degree feels this in regard to themselves.”
But thanks to modern psychology, we have begun to understand more about the psychology of when and how personalization works. It boils down to this: People like themselves. And the more you can connect your personalization message to aspects of their selfhood, the more positively your message will be received.
A study in 2020 summed up the results of decades of research on the topic. (Most of what follows is drawn from there, and you can read the whole thing here.) Its authors identified five ways that a message could be personalized to its recipient: momentary emotions and thoughts, long-standing attitudes, goals, identity and personality, and culture. For example, imagine an exciting television ad that runs during a big sports event — that ad matches the affective state of its intended recipient. Or imagine packaging on an organic food product that mirrors its audience’s judgments about the ethics of organic food. That’s matching along the lines of their basic attitudes about morality. These are all dimensions that are worth thinking about when you’re working on personalized marketing or sales content. In fact, the more dimensions you can simultaneously match, generally the better off you are.
According to the research, matched messages can generate feelings of rightness or fit, familiarity or fluency, self-efficacy, and authenticity. There’s even been some neuroscientific work done looking at which parts of the brain light up with activity when a person receives a personalized message.
But, at heart, why does personalization work? It’s as simple as this: Most people have positive feelings about themselves. So when a message links to their sense of themselves, it reflects that glow. Every person is their own sun. Be their moon.
Does that mean that the more personalized your marketing is the better? Well, not so fast. It depends. In fact, there are situations where personalization can actually hurt your sales and marketing.
A personalized message can produce negative results if the person receiving it feels like it invades their privacy, attempts to manipulate them, contains unfair judgments or stereotypes, or has material that’s too familiar to them. The more marketing-savvy a consumer is, the less likely they are to receive a personalized message positively. Fundamentally, the more a person is explicitly aware that a message contains personalized content, the more they might infer negative motives behind it.
It’s worth thinking more about how people’s attitudes change. Many psychologists use what’s called the elaboration likelihood model to explain how persuasion works. When a person encounters a message intended to persuade them, their mind can process it with greater and smaller amounts of thought. In other words, they can be more or less elaborate in how they think about it.
Depending on where the person falls, personalized matching can influence attitudes and behaviors differently. If a person is distracted, for example, and not paying much attention to the message, personalization will serve only as a momentary cue, and is not likely to produce long-lasting attitude change.
On the other hand, if a person is paying close attention to the content, and bringing more elaborate systems of thought to bear, then a personalized message can result not only in positive attitude changes toward the object or service, but ones that are long lasting. But there’s a really big catch: That’s only true when there are good arguments in favor of the product. A significant amount of research has shown that if you catch a person’s attention with a personalized appeal, but then deliver a weak argument in your favor, the person’s attitude toward what you are selling will actually decline.
All of that means this: If you have what consumers believe to be a good argument for your product, and an audience that can pay real attention to what you are saying, personalization is your friend.
If, on the other hand, your audience isn’t really paying attention, then personalization will have less of an effect. (For example, even if they could be personalized, subway ads are a bad place to put personal messages — people are too distracted to take them in.) And if you have what consumers have found to be a weak argument in favor of your product, don’t personalize. Come up with a better appeal or rely on non-personalized messages.
Personalization is more than just a gimmick. It’s is an important part of selling products and services, so it’s worth knowing a little more about why it works. Ultimately, you are aligning what you are selling with their positive self-image. That’s a big deal. There are situations in which it can mean the difference between closing a sale and missing out on an opportunity. But by the same token, there are times when it may be counterproductive. If you don’t have a good reason behind your sales appeal, be careful about personalization. Thinking hard about why you are using personalization will help you use it successfully.