A new study from the University of Illinois confirms what many of us may have suspected privately: “personalized” marketing communication online can often make us actively dislike the message’s sender.

“People bristle at personalization just for the sake of personalization,” said Tiffany Barnett White, the professor who headed the research. Barnett White found that relevance was one important factor in increasing recipient interest, but ultimately it was the actual value being offered that made the lion’s share of the difference in peoples’ reaction. At a time when information overload is often being responded to by varying degrees of personalization, we believe this study is worthy of consideration.

The University of Illinois study focused on emails sent to college students that were personalized based on information that the students voluntarily submitted. “Even when someone has volunteered their personal information, they still have preferences about how firms use it. They don’t want to be bombarded with a mountain of facts about themselves unless they perceive a very good benefit,” White said.

What This Means

We would argue that this behavior is probably common in online communication in general. If your service is personalizing its messages to users for anything but a very good reason, it’s probably a bad idea. Flickr’s “welcome [username]” in various languages around the world is cool – but other forms of fake personalization are not. Now we’ve got the numbers to prove it.

We’ve written here about how we want to get RSS feeds from PR agencies, not just emails – but the pseudo personalized emails are pretty obnoxious. The most obnoxious are emails personalized with our competitors’ names! (This happens at least once a week.) We also receive any number of other emails from online training services, conferences and others that include some personal information. Especially when this personalization tricks us into opening the email, then we really get angry at whoever sent us that email.

We are interested to know whether you, [Reader’sName], feel the same way – or if you are someone who uses this kind of personalization in your online communication and have seen different results.

Image from Beth Kanter