There is a concept in aesthetics called the Uncanny Valley. The idea is that generally we like things to be closer and closer to human likeness to maximize emotion and empathy. That is, until the thing reaches a point that is not quite human, but too close to human, for comfort. So, things that look somewhat human, but clearly are not (think C3PO from Star Wars or a teddy bear) look fine to us. But getting close without quite being right is highly offputting or creepy.
For some, this is part of a dislike for ventriloquist dummies or clowns or porcelain baby dolls. It’s also why even in these days of high-tech CGI, you will see animated movies that make cartoon characters to be, well, cartoony and not human looking. Efforts to make hyperrealistic animations have fallen into the Uncanny Valley (e.g., Polar Express, Beowulf).
This girl has come for your soul.
I posit that there is a similar dynamic in personalization.
On one side of the spectrum, you have the cable company. Long after most people have heard of the concept of caller ID, the first thing they ask you to do in their automated system is to put in your phone number.
What is the first thing the person on the other end of the line asks for after your brief 47-minute wait listening to the instrumental version of “My Heart Will Go On”? Your phone number. That isn’t just not knowing your customer; that is Memento-level forgetting.
On the other side of the graph, you have the Target Knows You Are Pregnant story. To make a long and interesting story short, there was a man who called Target irate that his minor daughter was getting coupons for items that would imply that she is pregnant. Shortly thereafter, he called back to apologize, letting them know that there were things going on in his house that he didn’t know about. Target “knew” his daughter was pregnant before he did.
This story is a bit creepy: that Target’s algorithms would “know” something like this. After other coupons were a little too overpersonalized, Target has started putting in random dummy coupons into its coupons, so they look a little more random. (Even though they know what you really want).
“Even then, retailers learned early that shoppers prefer their shopping suggestions not be too truthful. One of the great unwritten chapters of retail intelligence programming featured a “personal shopper” program that all-too-accurately modeled the shoppers’ desires and outputted purchase ideas based on what shoppers really wanted as opposed to what they wanted known that they wanted. This resulted in one overcompensatingly masculine test user receiving suggestions for … a tribute art book for classic homoerotic artist Tom of Finland, while a female test user in the throes of a nasty divorce received suggestions for a small handgun, a portable bandsaw, and several gallons of an industrial solvent used to reduce organic matter to an easily drainable slurry. After history’s first recorded instance of a focus group riot, the personal shopper program was extensively rewritten.”
― John Scalzi, The Android’s Dream
So here is the Ellinger Personalization Satisfaction Curve (I figure if I keep trying to name things after myself, one will stick):
As personalization increases, you like it, unlike a point where you stop liking it. The three big implication for nonprofits are:
- This curve is moving right. It used to be an innovation to have a person’s name included in the salutation. Now, unless you are going for an ultra-low-cost package, it’s table stakes. Donors used to be OK with the Super Mario Bros. excuse for not knowing entire gift history (“Thank you for calling, donor. But your data is in another database.”); now it is inexplicable. We now live in a world that knows our name and who we are (or can look it up quickly enough to simulate this).
- But people generally don’t like you to know things that aren’t logical leaps from their existing relationship. For example, if you are using acquisition lists from advocacy organizations, it’s almost certain fine to send them an advocacy piece from your organization to them. However, you don’t want to say “Because you support other advocacy organizations, you may want to help support our cause.” This is a part of the sausage making people don’t need or want to see.
- This sweet spot is different for everyone. Some people still get weirded out when people know who is calling from caller ID. Others wear their digital hearts on their sleeves, inviting everyone to know everything. The best you can do is aim for the middle for the general population at first, but then test up and down to see what each your donors prefer.
I’ll talk about a few positive customization techniques tomorrow.