We’ve all been there: on our lunch hour we surreptitiously visit our favorite My Little Pony fan site. Then hours later we bring our laptop to a meeting and project our client’s corporate web site for all to see – and right there at the top is a banner ad for My Little Pony: The Movie. How did that site know about our secret fetish? How embarrassing! How creepy!

When a marketer identifies a user’s web behavior or search terms in order to subsequently serve relevant ads on other sites is an example of retargeting. The goal is to catch consumers before they’re ready to make a purchase and serve them ads relevant to their expressed preference in order to close the deal – even though we consumers may have already made our purchase, or perhaps our behavior didn’t mean we were shopping for anything after all. Either way, many people find retargeting creepy.

The creepiness comes from the impression that the marketer knows more about you than you want or expect them to know, and furthermore, they know how to follow you around. In other words, they’re spying on you and stalking you. As I said, creepy.

Here’s the rub: while marketers know that the creepy factor is counterproductive, discouraging the very purchasing behavior they seek to encourage, most marketers still don’t understand how to draw the line between attentive and creepy – or how to reduce the creepiness factor.

Even worse: the big data technology behind retargeting is only the tip of the iceberg. Marketers are getting better and better at knowing more and more about you and at predicting your behaviors and desires. If you’re getting the heebie-jeebies that some big company is stalking you – well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Creepiness Galore

creepy basketToday the creepiness factor crops up in many places. A few years ago Target famously concluded a teenage girl was pregnant based on her purchasing behavior and sent her coupons accordingly – revealing her status to her now-irate father.

Another example: many retailers are now going crazy over iBeacons that identify when target users are in close proximity and can thus feed customized messages to their phones or other nearby devices. Let’s say you google for a great handbag, and then go to the mall. As you walk by a store, your name appears on a big screen in the window and a Siri-like voice informs you the handbag you were googling is on sale inside.

All together now: creepy!

Needless to say, the pace of innovation in such big data-driven targeting technology is advancing unabated. There is so much noise in today’s omnichannel world that anything a marketer can do to get your attention is welcome – and furthermore, the more information they can collect about you, the better. For the marketer, big data mean big cha-ching.

So, what did Target do to adjust their creepyville marketing to pregnant women? Bananas. That’s right, bananas. Everybody eats bananas. Bananas are safe. So mix in coupons for bananas (and other safe items) with coupons for baby formula and diapers, and now it’s harder to tell that Target is targeting you because you’re pregnant.

In other words, they’re still stalking you, only they’re getting better at it. Creepy!

Breaking Down the Creepiness Factor

To be fair, marketers as a rule are very smart people, and they realize that crossing the creepiness line is counterproductive. Furthermore, many of them also realize that bananas are not an adequate solution. However, what marketers generally haven’t done is spent enough time analyzing the creepiness factor.

The good news is that we can break down creepiness using many of the same techniques that marketers use every day. In particular, we need an understanding of different creepiness thresholds for different populations.

Different demographic segments will have different levels of tolerance for potentially creepy behavior. Millennials may be more tolerant than seniors, for example. We can also expect cultural and regional differences: I’m sure the French have a different perception than rural Americans.

And then there’s the desensitization factor. For those of us who are online a large portion of our lives, retargeting was creepy in its early days, but now we’re used to it. Thus, expect casual Internet users to be more sensitive than the uber-connected.

However, all of these population-dividing techniques are subject to the normal distribution. There will always be some percentage of any population – even, say, the most jaded urban American millennials – who find certain marketing to be overly intrusive. The question for marketers, then, is how much creepiness-related backlash are you willing to tolerate among your target market segment in order to market successfully to the rest of that segment?

And most important of all, how do you actually quantify what percentage of a specific market segment will find a particular marketing technique to be creepy? Simple: ask them. Every marketer should get in the habit of surveying members of its target audience segment by segment on any technique that might approach the creepiness line. If the first time you hear how creepy that new marketing campaign appears is on Twitter, it’s probably too late.

In other words, big data helped get us into this mess, and small data will help get us out. The bottom line: creepiness analysis should be a mandatory tool in any modern data-driven marketing tool belt.

Beyond Bananas: Mitigating Creepiness

It’s important to keep in mind that well-targeted, personalized marketing isn’t always creepy. In some cases consumers welcome and value such marketing. So, what’s the difference?

When people explicitly opt in to receive certain marketing messages, they’re less likely to think the messages are creepy – but only if they remember opting in, and the messages contain content they expect and appreciate. However, even opting in isn’t good enough if people are surprised by the level of information the marketer has about them.

In fact, surprise is the most significant element of creepiness. Marketing crosses the line into creepiness only when the receipt of a targeted message is surprising, or when recipients are surprised that a company has some particular knowledge about them.

If the teen had told Target she was pregnant and/or asked Target to send her pregnancy-related coupons, then nobody would have been upset with Target (whether dad would still be upset with her or her boyfriend is a different story).

Fair enough – but marketers won’t be happy with this answer. After all, they have all this newfangled big data technology to help them target customers. The last thing you want to do is wait around for a trickle of opt-ins! Surely there’s a way to address creepiness while still improving our ability to target our desired audience.

The answer is to get smarter about how marketers reduce the surprise factor. Keep customers informed about the information you’re collecting about them, how you’re collecting it, and what you’re going to do with it. Furthermore, putting the details in the fine print won’t cut it. You must be explicit.

And while most marketing activities don’t require the formal opt-in process that bulk email does, it’s still important to ask users’ permission for increased levels of interaction and targeting, if only in a subtle and informal way. Therein lies the art of big data-driven targeted marketing.

The Intellyx Take: The Antidote to Creepiness is Conversation

The boy that stares at you throughout the high school dance but never says a word is creepy. But the boy that comes up to you and engages in a conversation is not. The same is true for marketing.

Remember that the most important lesson from social media marketing is that today’s marketing cannot be a one-way street. It must be conversational, a back-and-forth between company and customer.

The same principle applies to data-driven targeted marketing. Yes, as big data marketing tools improve, companies will have greater insight into their customers’ desires and behaviors, and increasingly intrusive technology touchpoints for interacting with those customers. But customers do not want to be surprised by such technology. They want to be informed, and they want to be empowered.

Never forget that the driving force behind today’s digital transformation is the customer and their behaviors and desires. Marketing and its supporting technology serve to facilitate interactions with customers, but only on their terms, not the marketers’.

Don’t be that creepy boy at the dance. Engage in real conversations with your customers and respect their desires, and you’ll get the girl every time.

Intellyx advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers.


  1. […] to include the one that may not involve any technology at all. A simple handshake, smile, and respectful conversation trumps the most high tech technology channel every […]

  2. […] apps or iBeacons in stores or other devices in our environment knowing who we are so they can saturate us with marketing noise. As consumers, we want to be in […]

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