Marketing used to be based around demographic categories or social archetypes, but the more marketers and digital platforms know about you, the more personalised they can become in terms of both messaging and products. There are enormous opportunities here but also a growing need to tread carefully around just how deep and tailored marketing can go. From recommendations and mixtapes to merchandise and location, we look at how to do the personal properly. 

With so many social media bubbles built on self-obsession, it comes as little surprise that personalisation is one of the biggest buzzwords in marketing. According to recent research from Infosys, 74% of customers feel frustrated when website content is not personalised, while 59% of customers say that personalisation influences their shopping decisions. As consumers, our data has rarely been so easily given away and so widely reflected back on us. 

Music, meanwhile, has a long and varied history of personalisation. For a while, getting birthday emails (based on supplying your DOB when signing up to mailing lists) from acts was in vogue, while Spotify has long been big on personalisation with its Wrapped initiative and assorted recommendation playlists like Release Radar and Discovery Weekly. 

Alex Underwood, VP and head of global strategic partnerships & verticals at Spotify, even wrote an article called What can brand marketers learn from Spotify’s approach to personalisation? for Admap in November 2018, in which he explained, “Personalisation should be a trigger to inspire positive emotional resonance and reaction.” 

Fernando Delgado, marketing director for PIAS Ibero América, says that personalised marketing helps consumers to feel that they are special and that they belong. “Nike started offering to design your sneakers and you could even put your kid’s name on them,” he says. “Perhaps it seems obvious, but in these social times, we all aim to feel different even by taking part in a whole game. Marketing that tells you, ‘We thought you might like this,’ makes the click easier and quicker.” 

Generation Me Me Me 

Clearly, technological advances have played a huge role in the growth of personalisation by enabling and encouraging ever-more intimate online connections. Our data is the oxygen of digital platforms and – for all of the rising concerns over privacy – we still tend to hand it over with minimal fuss. Complex algorithms, meanwhile, are able to process this data in a way that is useful to both parties, gleefully spitting out recommendations and personalised advice. 

“In line with the power of the data we now have, I really feel that unique and personalised experiences are going to be essential to marketing in the 2020s,” Karen Lieberman, VP of sales and digital at Disney Music Group, told Music Ally in late 2019. “From streaming platforms to advertising to fan experiences, this will be key.” 

The rise of social media, with its emphasis on peacocking the personal, has also helped. Andrew Hirst, founder and director of Modern English, a Manchester creative agency that has been responsible for a number of personalised campaigns for the music industry, says that the current generation is Generation Me (an accelerated and hyper-connected version of the 1970s that saw Tom Wolfe term it the Me Decade). 

“People like to share things that show them having some sort of affiliation or being a fan of the artist,” he adds. “Effectively that generates shares because it is personalised content that they want to share to all their other friends. And that content effectively drives other people back to the app or the website where you can sell the tracks and all the rest of it.” 

Mandar Thakur, COO of Times Music, believes that personalisation is about relevance and personal expression. “Relevance comes with what’s relevant to your personality and desire at that point in time,” he explains. “Music [in today’s world] is not always the soundtrack to people’s entire lives as it once was; it has become the soundtrack to their micro-moments. That necessitates a changing preference to how you consume music.” 

Personally speaking 

Personalisation sits particularly well with music for the very obvious reason that your favourite supermarket can’t hold a candle to your musical crush. A Harry Styles website that sends visitors personalised messages purporting to be from Harry himself when they type in their name (part of a teaser campaign preceding the release of Styles’ second solo album, Fine Line) is likely to have a far greater impact than a personalised Sainsbury’s campaign. 

With this advantage comes greater responsibility. Personalised marketing is already a risky business – insensitive or aggressive personalisation can be hugely negative for brands – but this goes double when the messaging purports to come directly from an artist. The Harry Styles website, for example, sent one freelance writer for Creative Bloq a message that read, “You’re a bit needy, but it’s OK.” That could, potentially, have done damage in the wrong circumstances. 

Much personalisation in the music marketing world revolves around playlists. One of the most intriguing examples of this came in 2018 when Secretly Group created the AirKhruang website (in collaboration with Spotify) around the release of Khruangbin’s second album, Con Todo El Mundo. It allowed users to “book a Spotify playlist curated by Khruangbin for any trip around the world” by entering details such as their destination and seating preferences. 

“What was great about this feature was that it very quickly explained who Khruangbin are, the music that influences them, the idea of global travel and the fact that they do these DJ sets – but it is also just a great utility,” Robby Morris, creative director at Secretly Group, told Music Ally at the time. “You don’t have to know who Khruangbin are to engage with this application. That is what made it extra special to us. Now we are seeing people who have found the site and are using it who aren’t super familiar with the band or who discovered the band because of this utility.” 

Playlist initiatives can drive serious results. Modern English’s Foo Fighters Mixtape site, which builds personalised playlists based on the user’s “vibe”, was responsible for 4m streams in the first week of launch, while a personalised Christmas playlist initiative that the same agency created for Sony Music globally was part of a campaign that generated 85m streams in its first two weeks. 

“[The Foo Fighters Mixtape] was used to effectively launch the Concrete & Gold [album] campaign,” says Hirst. “It reengaged fans who hadn’t seen anything for 15 months.” Modern English also created a “back door” through Spotify that allowed them to add instant grat tracks from Concrete & Gold to users’ personalised playlists, teasing out the new album. 

There is more to personalisation than just playlists, however. Personalised graphics that use bands’ iconic logos have also become popular. Metallica were a pioneer of this with 2016’s Metallica Font Generator, which allowed fans to write their names in the iconic Metallica font and share the results on social media. In 2018, Rhino created a microsite celebrating Led Zeppelin’s 50th anniversary, allowing fans to generate their own Zeppelin logo. 

Sometimes these initiatives don’t even originate from the artist. In 2016, media production company and art collective The Young Astronauts created a website that allowed users to insert images of a small, sitting Drake figure into their own pictures in homage to the artwork of the rapper’s Views From The Six album cover. 

Putting the “me” in merchandise 

Merchandise can also come personalised, with the advent of print-on-demand technology allowing fans to add their names to garments from the likes of Catfish & The Bottlemen, while a 2019 initiative from Sony UK’s 4th Floor Creative division let fans use their Spotify profiles to create unique Bring Me The Horizon T-shirts based on their listening histories. 

Outside of music, Coca-Cola’s Share A Coke campaign, which put a range of popular first names onto Coke bottles and cans in the 2010s, was a huge success, responsible for a 2% lift in the US that turned around years of declining sales. 

The point here is that marketers can, and indeed should, look to personalise campaigns based on a variety of different factors, with the user’s name (which seems to have become something of a default) just one possibility among many. 

In 2018, Modern English launched the #DuaMoods website to push Dua Lipa that used facial recognition technology to create a personalised playlist based on a user’s photo, while the same company created a campaign for Elle King that allowed fans to use their mobile device as a metronome, delivering a bespoke playlist based on the tempo of their movement. 

Location, location, location 

Location is another key factor in personalisation. One of the standout early examples of this was Arcade Fire’s interactive video for ‘The Suburbs’ in 2010, which used satellite images from Google Maps to create personalised musical clips with the user’s address as the centrepiece, a hugely impressive initiative at the time thanks to the novelty of Google Street View and the fact that the viewer was inserted into the video’s actual narrative. 

Location marketing can also work well around events: in 2017 Universal Catalogue and Apple Corps celebrated #SgtPepperDay by creating the #LetsPlayPepper map, which allowed fans to plot their location when listening to The Beatles’ iconic album and filter by track or by country. 

In this way, location marketing – sometimes called geo-targeted marketing and which delivers messages to marketers based on their proximity to locations – can be considered a cousin to personalised marketing. Landmrk has been one of the leading lights on this in the music industry, launching Landmrk For Music in late 2018 that allowed music marketers to place digital content at real-world locations, which fans can then locate using their smartphones. 

Landmrk’s recent Lauv campaign gives a good idea of how this works (see Campaigns this issue). The premise is that Lauv has hidden clips of his new album’s tracks around the world, pinning them to specific locations using Landmrk. Fans unlock new songs by logging in from their current location via Spotify, Apple Music or Facebook and are encouraged to share what they find using the hashtag #howimfeeling, making this a neat combination of personalisation, localisation and data capture. 

Modern English CTO Gary Goard says that personalised campaigns should always “keep it simple”. 

“People don’t want this long, complex journey; they want to be surprised,” he explains. “Like the Dua Lipa site, simply take a selfie and get a playlist – it’s a very simple idea. They get something very quick and they are impressed by that.” 

Hirst adds, “Make sure it is sticky as well. If it is a personalised thing, make sure that it is available to share. Because that will drive other people back to the site, which is going to increase your streams and album sales.” 

Personalisation has its limits 

Karen Lieberman says to marketers: “Treat your audience with respect, offer options for how personal you can get while maintaining their comfort level. Maintain data integrity and privacy with the utmost care so consumers have confidence with your relationship. The trust you build will pay back in dividends as fans will become more loyal as a result of your efforts.” 

The list of what marketers shouldn’t do with personalisation is equally important. Overreach and blatant creepiness – like the infamous example of a father who found out his daughter was pregnant when Target sent her some coupons in 2012 – are obviously out. 

In a recent Gartner survey of 2,500 customers, more than half reported that they would unsubscribe from a company’s communications and 38% would stop doing business altogether with a company if they found their personalisation efforts “creepy.” 

“Brands need to be extremely thoughtful in how they personalise their content today,” said Martha Mathers, managing VP at Gartner. “Instead of utilising every piece of customer data available, brands should focus on showing customers you can help them first, then layering in the right balance of data to boost message relevance, without making things too personal.” 

Brands, obviously, must get permission from customers to use their data (particularly in the light of GDPR) and they should ensure their data lists are up to date in order that customers aren’t bombarded with inaccurate information. A degree of restraint is paramount, too: one birthday email a year is unlikely to offend; one email a week is likely to get on people’s nerves. The question of how much is too much is a tricky equation to balance. 

Max Lutkin, senior marketing manager at Atlantic Records UK, says that getting too personal is a real risk “although it absolutely depends on what area of personalisation you’re focussing on”. 

“Regarding data, there’s already such scepticism surrounding it, particularly in a post-GDPR world, but as Spotify have proven, show users the benefits or pros of using their data and they’ll be comfortable with it being used. You’re only as good as the data you have,” he explains. “Additionally, in the same way that social tone or messaging can be, there is a risk of personalisation becoming, for want of a better word, creepy.” 

Of course, the paradox here is that the more widespread personalised marketing gets, the less personal it seems. “If everything is personalised, is there a chance that, by its very nature, it loses that personal, bespoke touch and just becomes the norm and impersonal?” Lutkin wonders. “Does it maybe lose its potency and particularity?” 

Where is the value? 

Nevertheless, Hirst is convinced that personalisation is here to stay. “We are going to see a lot more of this,” he says. “I can’t see it slowing down. What we are doing at the moment is – with a huge act which will be out later on this year – looking at effectively creating a personalised journey through a band’s history. Whilst you are going through content, being able to, on the fly, add any of that content to a personalised thing. So you are effectively turning a website into an Amazon shopping basket experience, but using Spotify.” 

Ultimately, Lutkin believes that personalisation, much like other forms of marketing, needs to be relevant and add value. 

“If it doesn’t add value then maybe take another route,” he argues. “There are fantastic examples of where it’s worked and been successful, but equally there are instances where personalisation doesn’t create any additional substance. Just because the data exists, it doesn’t always mean it should be utilised. It’s possibly more relevant to other industries, but there is a danger of personalisation becoming insincere, intrusive and, in turn, you can end up breaking the trust of your audience.

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