Defining the Creep Factor (Part 1 in a 4-Part Series)

By | Thursday January 9th, 2014

Pop quiz: “Nerd glaze and the creep factor.” What is it?

a)   A punk band that never made it out of the garage

b)   Popular flavors at a hipster donut shop

c)    Inadvisable profile names on a dating Web site

d)   None of the above

Delicious as “nerd glaze donut” might sound, the answer is actually (d). “Nerd glaze and the creep factor” refers to a couple of the common perils of data-driven marketing. And in our next few blog posts, we’ll explain what the phrase means and why it matters.

Let’s start with the creep factor. In an online environment, retailers can observe every single nuance of an individual’s shopping experience. They do that for obvious reasons: A carefully tailored experience can lead to major improvements in cross-sell, upsell, and retention. Personalization simply works—and in study after study, consumers say that they like it.

But as every nerd knows, with great power comes great responsibility. When personalization goes too far, it stops being helpful and just gets … creepy.

We can illustrate this dynamic with an example from the brick-and-mortar business world. Let’s say you’re at a favorite shoe store. A sales associate notices you spending a lot of time looking at a particular line of dress shoes. Sometime later, you approach the cash register to purchase a pair of sneakers. The associate says, “I noticed you looking at our Brand XYZ display earlier. I just thought you’d like to know that we’re having a sale on dress shoes next week.” Helpful, right?

But what if the associate says something very different—just as observant, but not nearly as appropriate? For example, what if she happens to overhear you talking to your wife on your mobile phone, then suggests that you buy your wife a pair of shoes, too?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is when the creep factor sets in. You know it when you feel it—that queasy sensation you get when someone uses sensitive contextual information in an effort to personalize an interaction. And while the creep factor may show up from time to time in a brick-and-mortar setting, it’s far more common in the world of digital marketing, where companies tend to have access to much more intimate knowledge of a customer’s personal preferences and circumstances.

So when exactly does the creep factor enter the picture? Well, that just happens to be the subject of our next post. Check back for a deeper look into the origins of the creep factor phenomenon—and what your business can do to avoid it.

  • Andrew Wright

    Ha – timely! Just saw this in a Facebook friend’s status update this morning:

    “i wish the internet and facebook would stop creeping on me by putting items i have looked at on the side bar trying to pressure me to buy them.”

  • Monica Mullen

    Nice post, John. Not only is the creep factor relevant in digital marketing, but in so many other areas as lives become not only suported by, but intertwined with, more and more digitial devices. I can’t tell you how many times recently that I’ve heard automotive executives talk about avoiding the ‘creep factor’ in the auto industry, including a recent gaffe by one auto exec during CES. It was intended to be humorous, but fell flat.

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