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Don’t be creepy: how to use customer data without crossing the line

Technology & Data

Don’t be creepy: how to use customer data without crossing the line


James Hartwright outlines the importance of staying on the right side of the ‘creepy’ line when using data to provide personalised customer experiences. 

james hartwright 180Today, anyone working with data has a responsibility in the secure and ethical use of the increasing amount of content that individuals generate. When it comes to personalising the customer experience and respecting privacy of information, it is our job to keep on the right side of the ‘creepy’ line. To do that we need to understand what constitutes ‘creepy’ and where the creepy line sits.

Identifying creepy is hard: it’s more art than science because it’s very rarely breaking privacy law. However, it does come out as distasteful or disrespectful if companies:

  • Use data in a context that is unexpected,
  • induce sensitive facts from innocuous data,
  • re-contextualise data based on location or correlated data,
  • interject into private conversations, and
  • rub against the grain of social norms.*


Harder still is defining where the creepy line sits between personal privacy and personalisation, because it comes down to human perception. One person’s delight in targeted engagement can be construed by another as creeping into their personal privacy.

This makes it all the more likely that – in your ongoing quest for personalising the customer experience – you mistakenly end up in creepy town, disengaging some of your consumers at best or, at worst, becoming the next viral item on social media.

Related: Have you checked out our definitive guide to social media crisis management?

How then, with a definition based more on art than science and with no specific GPS coordinates, can we continue on our journey to personalisation without becoming creepy?

No matter your industry, size or customer base, these five golden rules should be applied when using data to personalise the customer experience:


1. Court the relationship

At a party, a friend introduces you to their cousin. Would you shake their hand and say ‘nice to meet you, oh, and, tell me how much you spend on groceries per week?’

Like any relationship, you can’t expect your customers to divulge personal information in the first meeting, so don’t ask for too much too soon. Get to know them over time by continually earning their trust. Once you have a solid foundation, ask them for something a bit more personal, perhaps in exchange for a reward as a gesture of good faith.

  • It’s personalising their experience if, for example, you ask customers which suburb or postcode they live in so you can better serve their needs, particularly if you have stores or offices in different locations, but
  • it’s creepy if you ask them how old their children are.


2. Be transparent

Transparency is about providing clear clarity of intent. There’s nothing wrong with asking customers for information or monitoring their behaviour in order to provide a more personalised experience. But shrouding it in smoke and mirrors can make you look guilty of something untoward.

Use it as an opportunity to educate customers by explaining, in plain English, how you collect and use their information and why. Once they know it is being used to deliver more value to them, they should be more forthcoming with information in the future and will likely respect you for your transparency.

  • It’s personalising their experience if you let customers know up front that you will use their behaviour on your website to offer them products you think they might be interested in, but
  • it’s creepy if you actively hide a convoluted statement of intent such as ‘any and all data we capture from you (including location, time of day, browsing habits) can be used by us to provide you with a better service and shared with selected third parties’ in tiny print, half way through your 74-page terms and conditions.


3. Be contextual

Nobody likes it when we bump into our boss in the supermarket or in the changing room at the gym. Even less so when they start asking for a status update on your current project.

Wrong time. Wrong place.

The same is true online, particularly with social media. Done properly, behavioural retargeting (advertising based on previous Internet activity) can prompt customers to revisit your site. Done in a spam-like manner, it can result in your brand popping up like an intrusive, unexpected and often unwelcome visitor.

  • It’s personalising their experience i you retarget your advertising on a health retreat website knowing that your customer has previously browsed for yoga wear online,  but
  • it’s creepy if you retarget your advertising on LinkedIn, knowing that your customer has previously browsed for yoga wear online.


4. Freedom of choice

Don’t be afraid to put customers in the driving seat. Giving them clear visibility of the data they are sharing with you; the ability to opt-in or opt-out of features and services; and access to change their preferences as desired can help instil trust. If you’re releasing a new feature or product, it can also give you a good indication of how well it is being received. If you don’t, and you get a very vocal negative response, you may need to pull the whole thing and start from scratch.

  • It’s personalising their experience if you allow customers to choose whether or not you can use their name in Facebook targeting to your friends, but
  • it’s creepy if you deny them access to your site if they don’t accept your social data gathering terms and conditions (unless it’s absolutely core to your business).


5. Use your moral compass

Everyone’s compass is a few degrees different, but a good way to check if you are using data in an ethical manner is to ask yourself if you would want your family members or closest friends subjected to it. If the answer is no, or if there is hesitation in arriving at an answer, then you could be about to step into creepy. Stop and reconsider your path, keeping your family and friends in mind.

  • It’s personalising their experience if you call a customer that seems to be spending abnormally highly on their credit card to help prevent them running into debt, but
  • it’s creepy if you offer weight loss products to a customer who has started purchasing clothes in a larger size than before


Our journey to personalisation need not be hampered by the absence of a conclusive definition or location of ‘creepy’. Rather, this suggests that the border between personalisation and personal privacy is not in fact an impassable 200-metre high solid wall of ‘creepy’, guarded 24/7 by the Night’s Watch, à la Game of Thrones.

It is more akin to trying to cross a river. Just because there isn’t a bridge, it doesn’t mean you can’t cross to the other side – you just need to build the bridge yourself. You need to do your research and find the right point at which to cross. You need the right planning permission; the right measurements; the right engineering methods and materials; the right construction team and the right time to build.

You also need to involve the community on the other side of the river from the outset.

Applying these five golden rules can help you find a safe and legitimate passage across to personalisation, a place where your customers, your relationships, your business and

your brand can engage on a far deeper and rewarding level. Take things slowly, always be on the watch out for warning signs, and be sure to listen to feedback and react accordingly.

If at any time it looks like you may be falling into creepy, then it’s not safe to continue. So come back and find a better path across, one that offers personalisation, respects privacy and stays well clear of creepy.


James Hartwright is portfolio solutions director at Certus



*  Tene and Polonetsky, 2013, A theory of creepy: technology, privacy and shifting social norms, 16 YALE j.L. and Tech. 59


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