Aim for Who, Not What

By Martin Lindstrom

The concept of personalization has become distorted by certain brand Web sites. What’s so “personal” about being greeted by name and having it awkwardly repeated throughout a company’s communications with you? Rather than personalizing the experience, the automatic, field-filling salutation can underline a company’s detachment from its customers. Once again, technology prevails over humanity, as the fiction of formulaic personalization, which we ourselves created, becomes a misguided reality, drifting further and further away from the original, laudable idea of personal contact between brands and consumers.

It looks, however, like automatically formatted personalization processes are not turning out as programmers and some CRM aficionados wanted them to. Sign up for an email account with Yahoo!, and you’ll discover technology is forcing one of the most popular search directories to factor human interaction into its negotiations, rather than relying on automatic sign-up procedures.

Due to the high number of robots signing up for Yahoo! accounts, which are later used as spam tools, Yahoo! has been obliged to adopt a trick to filter the real customers from the robots. The sign-up process now includes the appearance of an automatically generated word. The technique resembles a color blindness test and requires the recipient to identify it amongst a clutter of colored dots. Only a human recipient can identify and key in the correct word, ensuring that machines can no longer sign up automatically and use Yahoo! as the cover for future spamming.

Finally, we have reached a level of technological advancement that, ironically, cannot escape its own limitations or its need to commission a human agent for its processes to be completed. We have reached a level at which our technology is insufficient for its own requirements and at which it’s forced to think like a human.

When I receive spam (and, believe me, I receive hundreds of messages a day), I almost never open the ones from a company name, but I almost always open the ones supposedly sent by a “real” person. I’m repelled by the overt artifice of an email that’s signed “Sincerely, American Airlines,” but I find my hackles relaxing when I see a letter closes with an individual’s name.

The corporate veneer is, I think, becoming increasingly detestable. People hate the anonymity it reflects and are cynical about the apparently unbreakable wall of company insensibility that it communicates. People need to perceive feelings, and the corporate image has largely absented itself from the human arena. Web sites are adding distance between brands and customers by using language that excludes the visitor: The “we” and “our” they use don’t always include the visitor.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to deal with companies that seem to have real people around. I want to feel a personal spirit in emails and copy. I don’t want to be patronized by letters that adopt legally scrutinized, research-tested patter that lacks individualism and are signed by some corporate entity rather than a real person. In fact, I don’t deal with companies any more. I deal with people who happen to represent brands.

As technology continues along its developmental trajectory, the corporations that supposedly control it need to get hold of the steering wheel and start insinuating the human touch into every piece of communication they transmit. Opinions, moods, and mistakes are all part of the human condition. Yes, mistakes. Errors are a fact of humanity and their absence, along with the lack of personal voice, opinion, and emotion, can contribute to a sterile environment. Brands need to show they’re created and maintained by human beings to connect and do business with human beings.

So, before you think “perfect” and “sleek,” consider your company’s relationship with its customers. Perhaps they’re jaded by the unblemished corporate-speak they’ve been putting up with. Perhaps they need more human and less corporate dialogue. Don’t neglect this salient fact: Brand building depends on personal links between brands and people.

Martin Lindstrom is recognized as one of the world’s primary online branding gurus. His latest best-selling book, “Clicks, Bricks and Brands,” written in partnership with the one-to-one expert team of Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D., is the world’s first DualBook, a clicks-and-mortar subscription-based book concept.

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