Humans put the ‘hyper’ in hyper-personalisation

topshopUntil very recently, I was under the impression that when a TV football commentator said things like “And that’s the 27th time Wayne Rooney has received a yellow card against a team that plays in white”, they were simply surfacing one of the many facts swimming round in their brains.

Of course, it turns out that commentators are delivered these sorts of statistical nuggets in a constant, real-time feed from the good folk at Opta.

It strikes me that this combination of real-time data delivered with the subtly and nuance only a human can provide is something of a Holy Grail for brands.

Airbnb, for example, employs hundreds of ‘investigative agents’ who monitor customers’ social media activity and use the information to deliver highly-personalised experiences. Adam Jackson tweeted that an Airbnb guest had stolen a pizza-cutter from his apartment, only to find the next day he’d been sent a replacement one courtesy of the vigilant customer care team.

And when Airbnb noticed first-time customer Sarah Forde was travelling to a Comic Convention, they sent her a voucher for a local comic store.

Virgin Trains took this a step further when customer Adam Greenwood tweeted that he was stuck in one of their toilets without any loo roll. Quick-thinking customer service staff managed to radio through to the train in question, where staff were able to spare Adam’s blushes with a nick-of-time delivery.

Tesco, meanwhile, have taken personalisation beyond this sort of souped-up customer service and have just launched one-to-one beauty consultations delivered via Google Hangouts. Anyone can book free, confidential sessions with one of a panel of beauty bloggers and experts.

The challenge with this type of human-driven one-to-one communication is that it’s difficult to do it at scale. Which is why, of course, brands are trying to offer similarly-personalised experiences through smart use of data.

Yep, you can’t swing a cat in the digital marketing world without it hitting someone going on about single customer view.

For good reason though, because advances in technology mean it’s now simple for brands to combine transactional data (what customers have bought) with search data (what they’ve looked for), profile data (what they’ve told you about themselves), social data (what they’re like) and contextual data (what current situation they’re in).

McDonalds, for example, is rolling out a mobile app that combines what personal information it know about a customer, what they’ve previously bought and their current situation (location, time of day, weather) to deliver highly personalised offers.

And at this year’s London Fashion Week, Topshop used digital billboards to convey real-time catwalk trends through Twitter and combined that with contextual data – time of day, weather – to allow potential customers to tweet back and receive a personally-curated shopping list for a store less than 10 minutes away.

This is all powerful stuff, no doubt, but it’s not risk free. A highly personalised customer experience that hits the wrong note – over-familiarity, mistimed sentiments – is likely to be viewed less sympathetically than the broader brush strokes of a TV ad or billboard. (As Facebook found out to its cost when it delivered a personalised “Year in Review” video to a user full of photos of his recently-deceased daughter.)

Which brings us back to the trusty old human. For a truly hyper-personalised experience is surely one where all of the sophisticated, real-time data about individual customers is acted upon with the delicacy and nuance only flesh and blood can provide.

A bit like our friend the football commentator – though no sheepskin coat required.

Matt Simpson, group content director, Zone