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8 tips for non-creepy personalisation: lessons from Lord of the Rings

Leads Social & Digital Technology & Data

8 tips for non-creepy personalisation: lessons from Lord of the Rings


Gina Balarin gives tips for how content marketers can succeed with account-based marketing and personalisation, using the Lord of the Rings as a surprisingly relevant metaphor.

You, the content marketer hero, have been chosen for an epic quest. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to navigate your prospective customer from the heart of ignorance to the heights of success. Along the way you will help them travel through the wastelands of ‘too much content’ and the forests of ‘we thought this would be interesting, but we were wrong’.

Along the way you will face many foes: ignorance, ambivalence, competitors and the two-faced demon that is ‘personalisation that went wrong’.

The content battle

What if you had ‘one ring to rule them all’ (one key message to defeat all others) and a whole fellowship to stop the Lord Sauron (the evil of ‘not enough time’ that will steal your prospects’ attention) to help your prospective customers turn into real customers?

You do. It’s called Your Company’s Mission and your challenge is not just to accept that mission, but to make it a journey for your prospects to be proud of.

Too often, content marketers feel alone. They are battling the demand for constant constant production with the desire for content excellence – and along the way they forget that the casualties of war aren’t just well-crafted, coherent messages, but the very faith of their customers.

With the rise of Account-Based Marketing there is yet another fight to fight: this time, it’s a good fight.

What is ABM?

Account-based marketing is the noble art of defining your precise customers and creating personalised content that reaches straight into their hearts and minds using relevant, targeted information. Or, as LinkedIn defines it:

“In its simplest form, ABM is a strategy that directs marketing resources to engaging a specific set of target accounts.” – Megan Golden, LinkedIn Marketing Solutions Blog

The idea is that it should help them convert faster. For example, a survey done by CEB found that individual stakeholders who perceived supplier content to be tailored to their specific needs were 40 percent more willing to buy from that supplier than stakeholders who didn’t.

But does ABM really work?

Yes. And No.

When ABM works well it can help organisations win new customers, and content-marketing awards. When it doesn’t it just joins the detritus of more noise floating around in your prospects inboxes.

Good ABM campaigns contain elements including:

  • Relevant facts
  • Recognisable branding
  • Personalised content
  • A content journey
  • A carefully-selected list of prospects to target
  • Buy-in: from both sales and marketing, and from the leadership team supporting the ABM activity.

ABM is not a battle you can win as a lone content marketer. For one thing, even the bravest content marketer facing the Balrog of brand ignorance does not have the capacity to tailor content, individually, to every single prospect. They need help. And even if they do have help it won’t always work because what works for one team, region, campaign or company, will not necessarily work for another. In fact, using the same indiscriminate tactics can actually go horribly wrong.

When personalisation goes wrong

An example: How an award-winning ABM campaign failed

One company I worked with created an ingenious ABM campaign. They had thorough, well-researched data to back up their calculations, relevant information pulled directly from their target companies’ own annual reports, personalised and beautifully-printed brochures that they posted by snail mail directly to their target market. This was followed-u with an email campaign and dedicated telesales people to book the meeting to talk through the numbers and demonstrate their product’s ROI, as well as how it could help the company save massive amounts of money.

In the United Kingdom the campaign was a massive success. It won an award. But in their geographically-removed, but linguistically-related cousin country, Australia, it failed.


Because the fundamental problem with ABM – or any campaign designed around making assumptions about your audience – is that if your assumptions are wrong you create content that isn’t just inaccurate: it betrays people’s expectations.

Another example: A marketing campaign targeted at me that made me angry

As another example of personalisation gone wrong, this campaign – while not technically account-based marketing – used an intriguing tactic that could have succeeded, but didn’t.

Years ago, while working as a marketing director, I came across an interesting report from a recruitment company about The DNA of a Marketing Leader. I tried to download it: unsuccessfully. In fact, they wouldn’t let me. When I asked for a copy their clever response was intriguing.

“No,” they said, “You can’t download our content. But we will print and hand-deliver a copy to you. Please give us your address”.

“Sure,” I replied. “Feel free to drop it off with reception.”

And here’s where things started to go wrong. They refused. They would only hand-deliver the content to me if I agreed to have a meeting with them.

I was actually looking to hire new staff at the time – so I would have found their content relevant, helpful and trustworthy. By extension, I may have spoken with them about hiring a candidate in time.

But while I admired the bravery of their aggressive tactic, the way in which they delivered their response turned me right off.

What went wrong and why?

So what went wrong with these highly personalised marketing approaches?

The ABM campaign didn’t work because it wasn’t relevant to the local audience. No-one in the different geography believed the numbers. It didn’t have buy-in from the relevant stakeholders in the first place (the sales team). And it wasn’t followed-up appropriately (no-one emailed them or called them to check they had received the information). A great content idea fell into an abyss. The prospects felt the same way about letting the company get access to them as Gandalf did with to the Balrog in the depths of Moria when he said: you cannot pass!

The recruitment campaign didn’t work with me because they forgot the fundamentals of trust: one well-crafted email invite, backed up by good advertising, an intriguing headline and the promise of good content was not enough for me to carve out time in my incredibly busy schedule to see someone who was trying to blackmail me into a meeting via their content.

What could they have done instead?

The lesson for content marketers who dabble in personalisation is this: you are fighting an epic battle – not just to win your prospective customers’ attention, but to win their trust. And that means you can’t do it on your own. Nor can you do it half-heartedly.

To truly win the hearts and minds of your prospects you need a well-resourced army, a plan, and deep belief in the importance of your cause.

Tips for non-creepy content personalisation

  1. Think ‘campaign first’ – content is the start, but it’s not the end.

No matter how good, well-researched, relevant, well-designed and targeted your content is, it will fail without the right campaign resources to share it with your appropriate audience. Content and distribution are two halves of the same heart. Without both, the results will not come and your CMO will be heartbroken.

  1. Think ‘collaboration’

Just like the Fellowship of the Ring required beings of all types (men, Elves, Dwarves – even trees!) to defeat the forces of darkness, so too does your content team need to collaborate. Content that is designed with the full support of your sales team is far more likely to succeed. In fact, a joint Marketo and Reachforce study found companies that use ABM become 67 percent better at closing deals when they sync their sales and marketing teams. It makes sense, after all, their job is to know what your customers want and you can use this knowledge to create content that succeeds.

Organisation-wide content insights don’t begin and end with your salesteam. There is an entire untapped army of insights you may not have joined forces with. Your customer service leaders can provide customer insights, your product people may have unpublicised but really cool features, even your design teams, your legal support, or your HR people may have insights that could help you craft a content campaign to rule them all!

  1. Think ‘engagement’

So you’ve produced amazing content. That’s great. Now what? What’s the incentive for people to contact you once they’ve read your content? I have a theory called the Content Marketing Striptease: It’s about revealing the right layer of information at the right time and building up a sense of anticipation. As content marketers we need to woo our prospective customers until they come to us and are ready and committed to slip their digital $20 into our virtual garter belt (i.e. share their work details to fill in a form – what were you thinking?).

  1. Think ‘value’

Is the stuff you’re ‘teasing’ them to get really as valuable as you suggest it is? Disappointing content doesn’t just fail to return marketing investment: it can actually break your audience’s trust in you. And trust, once broken, is hard to replace. If you’re wooing your audience and enticing them to download content with flashy promises that your content fails to deliver, you will fail to earn their long-term trust and the price of this is a long-term sacrifice. Just as the Shire and Osgiliath fell to the enemy, if your content makes promises that you can’t fulfil, you will be defeated.

  1. Think ‘human’

Avoid obfuscational prose constructed to impress erudite individuals. No-one has the patience to pull out a dictionary to make sense of your content. You won’t impress them: you’ll just push them away. Simple language works. Use it.

  1. Think ‘design’

What made the Elves in the Lord of the Rings so great? Their power that is both beautiful and terrible. Similarly, words are awesome. But without good design they are nothing. Your ‘terrible’ power of persuasion packed into vowels and consonants is only valuable if people want to read them. Great design makes your content more meaningful – especially if you make it digestible for your audience. It can make a magnificent impact and amplify the power of your prose.

  1. Think ‘Lord of the Rings’

The Lord Sauron of content (the ‘evil’ of ‘not enough time’) will steal your prospects attention. You have to earn the right to their attention, so make it impossible for them to turn your content offer down. How do you do this? Make it an adventure.

-Have a guide to help you through it (an campaign / project leader).
-Have a mission (your company’s objectives and the campaign’s goals).
-Look for allies (the Elves – or your sales, product or customer service teams). They may want slightly different things, but they’ll collaborate to help you reach an overarching objective.
-Take your reader on an epic journey.
-Celebrate success.

  1. Realise that ‘a #fail isn’t the same as failure’

If the Fellowship of the Ring had turned around when the going was tough: when the pass in the Misty Mountains was unpassable, the Elves wouldn’t lend an army but merely a cloak of invisibility, and all eventually thought Frodo had been killed in pursuit of their question to destroy the ring – did they give up? No.

In content, the same applies. A piece of content may not succeed: but just because we’ve lost the battle to win attention on that piece, it doesn’t mean we’ve lost the whole war! A mistake is a setback, not the end. What we might perceive as a content failure may not really be a mistake: It may just have been bad timing, an ill thought-out campaign, targeting that could have been more accurate, content distribution in the wrong place or advertising spend on the wrong keywords. Don’t give up: re-use, repurpose, recycle.

How to re-use content and marketing tactics to rule

If the recruiter who creeped me out had explained why the content was worth my time and what I’d learn from speaking with her, she would have had that meeting. Similarly, if the Australian ABM campaign had persevered and tried different tactics it would have reached its audience.

The same lessons apply to re-using content, even when it doesn’t perform. If the statistics underpinning an ABM campaign are valid and engaging, re-use them. If your audience didn’t reply to an email, send them a LinkedIn message instead. If people didn’t download your white paper, turn it into an infographic. If the report was too long to read, summarise it in a video instead. If no-one opened your email, change the subject line and re-send it. If you didn’t reach the right audience in your database, send the email through a relevant content distribution third party.


It sometimes feels too hard to carry on fighting the good content fight. But you are not alone. Never underestimate the power of your army (colleagues, friends, even external advisors), the value of wisdom from trusted sources or your own capacity to do good. If your vision for saving your prospects from the ills that befall them on a daily basis by selling them your product or service is good, valiant and true: you will emerge triumphant.

Gina Balarin

Gina Balarin is founder and director of Verballistics Pty Ltd, TEDx speaker and author of The Secret Army: Leadership, Marketing and the Power of People.

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