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I'll be honest—when I saw this headline in my Twitter feed, I nearly laughed out loud: "Forget Personalisation, It's Impossible and It Doesn't Work."

In fact, I assumed the piece was satirical. It wasn't.

As a long-time believer in and witness to the power of personalization in email marketing, I was skeptical. However, if you take the time to read the article, you'll discover that the authors make strong arguments about the weaknesses of personalization as a technical endeavor and business goal for B2B brands.

Their opinion hinges on two points. Both are worth examining, along with some counterpoints.

Point 1: Personalization Isn't Achievable Because of Bad Data

"Most personalisation efforts are powered by third-party data," the authors write. And "most third-party data is, to put it politely, garbage."

Although selfishly I'd argue that there are some providers of good third-party data—because Oracle does it, and does it well—it's undeniable that the general state of third-party data is awful.

The authors also say that isn't likely to change—because of new privacy laws, such as GDPR, and changes in platform privacy, such as the introduction of Mail Privacy Protection by Apple and the sunsetting of third-party cookies. I couldn't agree more.

Counterpoint: Personalization shouldn't be powered entirely by third-party data. It should be powered primarily by zero- and first-party data as part of a permission-based relationship marketing program via email, SMS, and other channels, with third-party data used only for supplementation.

Trying to personalize content to people with whom you have no relationship is incredibly difficult, and it will indeed become harder and less effective. The call to action here isn't to abandon personalization efforts but, rather, to embrace customer relationship-building.

I promised hard truths, so let's also be honest about the state of zero- and first-party data. That's a mess, too, in large part because of out-of-control martech stacks that are littered with data silos full of conflicting information.

But zero- and first-party data are far more reliable than third-party data, and their future prospects are much brighter as well. Brands are recognizing that the best-of-breed approach to their martech stacks has become unwieldy, slow, and expensive. That's a fixable problem if you give it time and effort.

Relatedly, customer data platforms, in which there is high interest, are a promising solution that aggregates, cleans, and mobilizes customer data across channels for a more accurate and consistent customer experience.

Point 2: Personalization Doesn't Work Even When Data Is Good

"Even if we knew everything about the customer," the article's authors write, "we still wouldn't be able to design creative tailored to their individual tastes."

It's certainly true that personalization and segmentation efforts regularly miss the mark. For example, 70% of people say they receive mistargeted messages at least once a month, and 24% report they get them daily, according to a survey by Redpoint Global. But I'd argue that's because of the already acknowledged problems with data quality.

Instead, the authors advise, brands should invest in "one-size-fits-most creative that speaks to the common category needs of all potential buyers, all the time." As evidence, they point out that "The biggest movies, books, songs, and ads all speak to universal experiences that resonate with everyone, everywhere."

That's a compelling argument about the power of shared experiences.

The authors also ask, "Can you name a single famous brand built through personalisation?"

Counterpoint: Not all brand-created experiences need to be, nor should be, shared experiences. Brands have many opportunities to create moments of connection using personalization in one-to-one channels such as email, SMS, push, direct mail, and digital ads, among others.

As for famous brands built through personalization, I'd say Netflix and Spotify, for starters. But writing off a marketing tool or approach because there aren't famous brands built on it is an unrealistically high bar. By that standard, brands shouldn't bother with automated campaigns, segmentation, SMS marketing, push messaging, or numerous other well-established tools.

A fairer question would be to name famous brands that have improved their brand through personalization. Then the list becomes extensive: Amazon, Hilton, the New York Times, Nordstrom... really any retailer, airline, hotel chain, media company, or consumer subscription service of significance today.

That it's a list of B2C brands that spring to mind when I think about personalization gets at the real point the authors are making...

Personalization Isn't for B2B Brands

Counterpoint: B2B marketing and B2C marketing are converging and have been for a long time. The Human-to-Human (H2H) and All-to-All (A2A) movements acknowledge that.

Technology, both on the martech provider side and the audience side, is also converging and opening new doors. For example, corporate email environments look increasingly the same as consumer email environments, thanks to greater adoption of Microsoft's Office 365 and Google's G Suite for corporate email, both of which use the same backend as their consumer email platforms.

Also, B2B brands have access to largely the same marketing capabilities as B2C brands, as well as the same artificial intelligence and machine-learning capabilities, which will be key to executing personalization at scale in the years ahead.

Although some B2B brands are so structurally focused on their offerings and operations that personalization won't move the needle for them, most B2B brands are sufficiently complex to benefit from it—whether offering a variety of product lines or a deep catalog of SKUs, serving many different industries or kinds of customers, or providing access to a vast trove of content.

But let's be realistic about personalization and what it can deliver.

Should every experience be personalized? No. Should most experiences be personalized? Probably not. But should some experiences be personalized? Definitely, because people respond positively when it's done well.

Will using personalization make your company wildly more successful? Probably not. Will it make your company more successful than it would otherwise be? Almost definitely, because personalization boosts response when used appropriately and demonstrates to your customers that you're paying attention to them.

Is getting the data necessary to do personalization easy? Not for some companies. But should brands abandon personalization because it's hard? No, because despite the desire for greater privacy, people simultaneously want experiences that are tailored to their individual needs.

In survey after survey after survey for more than a decade, people say they want both privacy and relevant experiences. And although their desire for more privacy makes it harder for brands to deliver on their desire for more relevancy, it's an expectation we still need to meet.

More Resources on B2B Personalization

Five Tips for a More Personalized B2B Content Strategy

How to Use Personalization to Shorten the B2B Sales Cycle

Personalizing Your B2B Marketing to Supercharge Lead Gen: Adobe's Drew Burns on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

image of Chad S. White

Chad S. White is the head of research for Oracle Marketing Consulting and author of Email Marketing Rules, as well as over 3,000 posts about digital marketing.

LinkedIn: Chad S. White

Twitter: @chadswhite