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Marketing Agency Leadership Personalisation

The cocktail party effect: why personalization really works (and when it doesn’t)

By Jack Stacey | Content Writer



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June 20, 2023 | 8 min read

The secret to personalization that cuts through the noise? According to Earnest’s Jack Stacey, it’s a psychological principle called the ‘cocktail party effect’.

An assortment of cocktails

How is marketing personalization like a cocktail party? / M.S. Meeuwesen via Unsplash

Personalization in marketing works because it helps our brains filter out the digital noise to get to what’s relevant to us. It’s not just desired, but expected; an overwhelming 92% of marketers say that customers expect a personalized experience.

So, we know that personalization gets results – but we rarely ask why. Why do we get a kick out of seeing our name in a marketing email’s subject line? Or getting tailored suggestions? Or talking to personalized chatbots?

And how can we use this information to create better, more impactful personalized marketing content that delivers, both for marketers and audiences?

The obvious answer

One of the biggest and most obvious reasons we go for personalized content is that we think it can get us to where we need to go quicker.

Content that already knows a bit about you is more likely to be able to deliver you the information you need based on that knowledge. It can serve up products and services that are relevant to you, saving you time and clicks and giving you an immediate answer.

And in a world where search engines and AI language models can provide us with the right information instantly, quicker results driven by personalization are always going to come out on top.

Cocktails and personalization

But go beyond that surface level, and things get a little bit more interesting. An excellent article from MAQE suggests that one of the big reasons we go in for personalized marketing content is down to the ‘cocktail party effect’.

There’s a part of the human brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS oversees directing our attention – particularly selective attention. It helps us pinpoint the most important information from everything we experience.

The ‘cocktail party’ effect is what happens when RAS does its job well. At a party, you’ll hear lots of sounds, see lots of lights, and taste a few mock or cocktails. That’s a lot of information, but when you hear your name, your RAS will kick in and immediately direct your attention to whoever just said your name in conversation.

It blocks out the other noise to help you spot something of interest – just like it might have blocked out the sounds of sub-Saharan Africa so that our ancestors could listen out for carnivores.

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The online party

Think, then, of the digital world as one big cocktail party. We spend on average about two hours and a quarter on social media each day. While we do, we’re constantly being battered by content. It’s a consistent stream of posts, ads, videos and audio – and that’s not to mention everything else we experience online, like work.

That’s a whole lot of information. Just like at the cocktail party, our RAS has the difficult job of filtering our sensory data and picking out the bits that are really worth our attention.

It’ll pick up on the names, the industries, the personal connections, and the suggested items that are relevant to you out of the sea of digital content. It’ll direct your attention to what it thinks will matter most to you.

Gaming the RAS

But what if everyone is doing the same thing? If everyone is using the ‘name-in-the-subject-line’ trick, how do you convince your audience’s brains to focus on your personalized content?

It’s all about finding new and exciting ways to personalize. Let’s stick with the cocktail party (and why shouldn’t we? They have twiglets). Imagine everyone at the party saying your name, talking about your career and mentioning restaurants they think you’ll like. Your RAS is going to have a hard time focusing on any of it. It will all feel overwhelming and indiscernible.

But say some enterprising attendee pays for an enormous hot air balloon with your name on it to float past the window, with a list of local eateries tailored to you. You’ll most definitely choose to talk to that person, because what they’ve done is far more interesting than anyone else at the party, and it’s still relevant to you and your RAS.

The point of all this is to say that, generally, personalization on its own isn’t enough to really engage your audience – it has to be personalization that’s different, that no one else is doing, that’s fresh and attention-grabbing.

Do the basics like email personalization, sure, but also consider personalized videos, personalized billboards, product matchmaker tools and website personalization. Let’s make this cocktail party a little more interesting.

Marketing Agency Leadership Personalisation

Content by The Drum Network member:


Earnest is the award-winning B2B marketing agency that’s chasing out the humdrum in London and New York.

Why is B2B treated like the poor cousin to B2C? Business people are still people, after all – they just happen to be at work.

Since we opened for business in 2009, we’ve built brands, shaped strategies, produced content programmes, created experiences and developed campaigns that not only deliver results, but engage and delight their audiences too.

Our story

B2B marketing is tough. There are hard-to-reach audiences. Difficult-to-please internal stakeholders. And very often complex, intangible products.

That’s why B2B deserves just as much attention, passion and intellectual energy as B2C. And it’s why Earnest is on a mission to raise standards in B2B, creatively and strategically. Chasing out the humdrum, and ushering in the unexpected.

We positively relish the unique challenges that B2B marketing presents. Since we started the agency in 2009, we’ve earned a reputation for devising solutions that go beyond the obvious, often delivering far more than the client’s original objectives.

The agency offers an unusually broad mix of disciplines – including branding, campaigns, strategic planning, content, and experiential – and we’ve won awards for them all. That’s testament to the fact that we approach every challenge, of every size and every shape, in the same way – with high standards and open minds.

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