Hey, (Your Name Here)!

In the ongoing search to find the next big idea to take our marketing performance to new heights, we can be forgiven for occasionally going overboard. This is especially true at a time when CMOs are among the most expendable members of the C-suite.

A study by executive search firm Spencer Stuart reported that CMOs’ tenure has averaged 22.9 months, compared with 53.8 months for CEOs. And just 14% of top-brand CMOs have been with their present company more than three years, vs. 50% who’ve been on the job for less than a year.

Clearly the CMO position is under intense scrutiny and is a volatile post at best. So in that headlong rush to find “the” way to keep business growing, our clawing fingernails may tend to hang on to whatever looks like the best chance to keep the bottom line on the upswing.

Is this the case with the trend to “personalize” everything? Clearly, personalization has shown significant value in a variety of marketing vehicles. But like everything else, it eventually has a saturation point.

Does simply slapping my name on a direct mail piece and referring me to a personalized URL guarantee success? Of course not. Just as with e-mail, which has clearly reached nearly laughable status in terms of over-personalization (“Grant Johnson, Now Get a Full Head of Hair!”), we’re beginning to see the same kind of overuse emerging across the marketing spectrum.

We need to remember that it’s customers — not us — who define what’s relevant and decide the channels through which they want to receive our brilliant marketing messages.

Is the short-term success of personalization sustainable, or are we better off using traditional direct marketing techniques such as face-to-face contacts and telephone calls?

I vote for the latter. Marketers need to use traditional DM methods in prospecting rather than just relying on personalized e-mails to do that essential task in an attempt to shortcut testing.

It can be annoying for consumers to receive mailings from a company or organization they don’t know that acts like it’s known them for years. It’s one thing to buy or rent a list with my name on it, but I’d rather you wait to be my buddy until I’ve purchased something from you, or requested information and defined the relationship parameters. Otherwise it’s just another version of that anonymous person calling on the phone and greeting you with “Grant, how are you doing today?” long before getting around to saying who he or she is, and what they want from me.

Let the target audience define how it wants to be marketed to and via what channels, then test various offers and messaging platforms based on that data to gauge results.

Want examples of marketers that know this to be true, and are the leaders in their respective segments? Look no further than:

•Starbucks : How I want my coffee is different from the way you want yours.

•Harley-Davidson: How I customize my bike is different from the way you do it.

•Apple: The music on my iPod is different from yours.

What makes these three brands the best? Personal relevance. They each seem to understand that their products are that much better because each user can make them their very own.

It might help to recall valuable, hard-earned lessons from marketing’s past whenever we consider using personalization: telemarketing (do-not-call legislation); e-mail (overuse and spam that’s negatively affected response and its use in prospecting); and misguided direct mail that inundates our mailboxes (think quality, not quantity, please!).

Is personalization a bad thing? No. But we need to let our customers and prospects tell us how to proceed.

They may say they love personalization; they might show us that there can be too much of a good thing; or they could decide that the answer is somewhere in between. The important thing is to pay attention and look at customers and prospects as the drivers of our continuing efforts.

Remember “The customer is always right?” It’s never been more true than it is today as we move into the world of new media. Keep testing and keep listening to your customers. Your reward will be long-term success, not just short-term spikes in response.

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