Target learns that customized offers need to be in your face

Customized offers are great, but the line between perfect match and creepy is nuanced

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Credit: Target

Every channel is its own island, with its own strengths and weaknesses. The temptation is to try and make every island universal. Target this week learned that sometimes less is more.

Its Cartwheel coupon app, which had shown users all of the standard offers, now can present offers customized for each shopper. It's in-your-face customization.

"The beloved couponing app just got its biggest redesign and overhaul since launching three years ago," Target said in its announcement. "Open the app, and you’ll immediately see 'For You' — our personalized offer recommendations — to get you inspired and excited about your trip through our aisles."

This is good and bad. Well, to be charitable, let's say that it's good and sub-optimal.

Let's start with the good. Target is embracing what works best for mobile. Customization — showing shoppers only things based on their behaviors and stated preferences — is a powerful reason to open the app. Done properly, it's also an excellent tool to drive sales.

Here's the sub-optimal. Shoppers can't make those purchases from within the app. Despite an impressive show of support for various channels, Target seems to be defaulting again to a store-centric worldview, something that Walmart has also done with frustrating frequency.

It's absolutely fine to let shoppers know what is available in-store, but that should always take a back seat to allowing them to give you money right now from within whatever channel they are using. Sales law: 'Tis better to get 95% of the money right now than to take a chance at getting 100% in an hour. A lot can happen in an hour. Is that extra 5% worth taking that risk? Take the money now.

Target has a wonderful site and app and certainly can handle non-store purchases. But it's the relentless assumption — that "trip through our aisles" phrasing — that the physical store is where all shoppers want to be that is the problem.

Having said all that, customization is arguably the most powerful and persuasive online/mobile tool. Here's the trick. Despite massive and necessary automation and analytics, the choices should feel as though a human carefully selected them. This is why phrasing is so critical and why it has to be so nuanced. You have a contradictory mission: you must appear to have lovingly chosen these items because of your excellent knowledge of the shopper, but you have to avoid wording that suggests a creepy level of snooping.

The software can make the choices, but marketing must use phrasing that carefully walks this verbal tightrope. There's the easy stuff, such as offering an area to instantly reorder previously purchased items, with the product specs (color, size, flavor, etc.) auto-populated. Then the accessories and related items. And scattered within those items are products that are not especially related to that shopper at all, but you're trying to push them anyway.

A nice touch would be to have humans go through all products and, as creatively as possible, flag anything that someone reasonably might be embarrassed by and exclude them from standard recommendations. This falls under the creepy category and is something that sites that are managed directly by software fail routinely.

A colleague, for example, used to purchase beer and whiskey online. He had no problem with those purchases, but unsolicited emails trying to sell him more struck him as creepy. As I mentioned, it's a contradictory tightrope. Shoppers want you to know them well enough to make appropriately targeted suggestions, but not so much that it feels invasive. It's subtle. A suggestion that it's time to reorder paper towels is fine, but one for reordering toilet paper might not be. Bottled water is good, but beer might not be. Pregnancy tests are never a good reminder, because the emotions surrounding such purchases are ultra-intense.

Target's move to more accessible customization is good, but a nice human touch atop that software would be even better.

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