The Drum Awards Festival - Extended Deadline

-d -h -min -sec

Data Deep Dive Data & Privacy Media

Relevancy should override personalization in the world of data-driven marketing

By Rob Pellow, Executive technical director

May 15, 2023 | 9 min read

It’s time for the ad industry to relinquish its obsession with personalization, argues Armadillo’s Rob Pellow. This story is part of The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, The New Data & Privacy Playbook.

Cartoon faces

/ Adobe Stock

Personalization is the zenith of modern marketing, delivering us all better customer experiences, higher conversion rates and increased loyalty. Or is it?

It’s true that by leveraging data and technology, brands can create tailored experiences that make customers feel seen, heard and valued. However, as with any buzzword, there is a danger of overusing and misusing personalization, leading to consumer fatigue and even backlash.

This is why relevancy should be the primary focus of zero- and first-party data marketing, rather than generic personalization.

Powered by AI

Explore frequently asked questions

More than a name at the top of an email

Using personalization has been the most often pitched tactic at every customer relationship management (CRM) conference and pitch I’ve ever heard. But what do people mean by it? Is it personalized to repeat back to someone what they’ve already shared – even when no additional thought has been put into it? I’ve got loads of emails or letters addressed to ‘Mr.’ or saying things like ‘Hey R, don’t miss out on…’. My name is not even included, and, honestly, even if they had gotten it right, does a company I bought a hairbrush from two years ago need to be on a first-name basis with me?

To the average user, personalization has become synonymous with the ever-present third-party cookie, which feels like an invitation to follow me around the internet trying to sell me a sofa I idly glanced at on my lunch break. This blunt tool means people often respond negatively to the idea of personalized digital experiences. Being regularly encouraged to do something that one doesn’t want to do can be so jarring that it will stop people from letting a brand interact with them. This isn’t just part of my campaign to force a ‘reject all’ option on all cookie pop-ups. But seriously, stop making users untick 30 boxes.

Relevancy, on the other hand, is about ensuring a marketing message or experience is useful, valuable and meaningful to the consumer. It’s looking deeper into who customers really are – not just assessing a one-dimensional scrape of their data.

Relevancy is what is useful to the individual

Working in a world of data-led marketing is a privilege. People have given us their trust, but we have to earn the right to keep that trust and keep using that data.

Relevancy builds trust, loyalty and advocacy. When a brand shows that it understands the consumer’s context, intent and value proposition, it can create a positive emotional connection that goes beyond transactional relationships.

A great example to illustrate what I’m talking about here is film trailers. Film trailers shown in theaters sometimes only go as far as to suggest films in the same genre as the ones being shown in the theater at present. But maybe a film would interest a given consumer because of a specific actor – or maybe the consumer likes comedy more than big explosions. But trailers aren’t necessarily tailored to these nuances and preferences. A truly relevant film trailer would tell consumers why they should go see the movie, tell them what time it‘s on at the local theater and then give them an offer to use on the days they might regularly go.

My much wiser friend helped me understand this principle a few years ago by talking about the purchasing cycle of something like skin cream. A personalized journey would entail reacting to someone’s purchase by telling them all about what they’d bought, making recommendations based on what other people who bought that cream bought next and hitting them with friendly nudges to repurchase. It would probably be somewhat successful. But it’s not actually interested in who that customer is or why they bought the product. What if they were trying it for the first time? What if they bought it as a gift? That journey wouldn’t maximize or entice some of those consumers; in fact, it might put them off.

Even the consumers for whom such a campaign was mostly spot-on aren’t getting any sense of real relevance; people are much savvier now. They understand that a digital transaction of any kind has implications beyond the purchase. One of my favorite tweets of the last few years saw a user poking fun at Amazon for re-targeting them for something they surely don‘t need more of – like an air conditioning unit.

What does this mean in real terms? It means looking at more of the inputs a customer provides through their behavior. What are they browsing? What does their purchase history look like beyond the last action they took? When are they likely to purchase (either in a day or as a frequency)?

But – and here’s an option that‘s too often overlooked – a brand can ask its customers specific questions. And – get this – they will probably tell you. People love being excited about the things they like. And they want more of them. And they like being seen as experts.

Suggested newsletters for you

Daily Briefing


Catch up on the most important stories of the day, curated by our editorial team.

Ads of the Week


See the best ads of the last week - all in one place.

The Drum Insider

Once a month

Learn how to pitch to our editors and get published on The Drum.

It’d be lazy not to (if the right tech is on hand)

Advances in marketing technology mean it’s easier than ever before to apply these extra dimensions to a brand‘s communication approach. Tools like Braze make it easy to use data-driven, multi-channel insights to create messages that are relevant and timely, leading to higher levels of engagement and better customer experiences. With the ability to track customer behavior in real-time, across web, app, email and more, businesses can quickly identify trends and patterns that can be used to create personalized messaging.

Providing personalized experiences to customers has become essential for building brand loyalty and driving growth. However, many businesses struggle to deliver relevancy in their CRM efforts, which can lead to disengaged customers and lost revenue. Ultimately, customers won’t feel like their privacy is invaded if a brand is providing real value – and that happens through relevancy.

Rob Pellow is executive technical director at Armadillo. To read more from The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, where we’ll be demystifying data & privacy for marketers in 2023, head over to our special hub.

Data Deep Dive Data & Privacy Media

More from Data Deep Dive

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +