American Marketer


Understanding the difference between contextual and too-close-for-comfort messaging

May 1, 2014

Brent Hieggelke is chief marketing officer of Urban Airship Brent Hieggelke is chief marketing officer of Urban Airship


By Brent Hieggelke

Some applications know everything about a user – name, birthday, purchase history and location – without the consumer even realizing it. This wealth of information helps marketers personalize messages.

But when do brands step over the line with this powerful data set? And where is that line, exactly?

“You only get one shot,” said Scott Michaels, vice president at app development agency Atimi, as he opened up this panel discussion at Mobile Saturday, an event in March at SXSW, Austin, TX.

“If a brand gets too personal and makes the user uncomfortable, the user will opt out of location or push notifications, or go so far as to delete the app all together,” he said. “There’s no use case where a user goes back into an app to turn on push notifications.”

When personal data is used thoughtfully in app messaging, it provides a highly relevant experience and can add value for both the customer and the brand.

Mobile leaders emphasize using the information that apps already collect to shape their messaging strategy.

Inferring user preferences through behavioral signals rather than overtly asking users for personal information is key in building successful engagement strategies.

Personalization vs. privacy: when it crosses the line
Over-personalizing in mobile is a concern because the devices are such an intimate part of our lives. But it is that characteristic – their omnipresence –that makes mobile’s data far richer and more revealing than other data sets.

One well-publicized example of over-personalizing is Target’s direct advertising of baby products to a young woman.

Due to tracking her purchase data and consumer behavior, they were able to deduce she was pregnant before her father even knew.

“Pushing an offer without saying why is pretty benign,” Mr. Michaels said, adding that it can be accomplished by using quantitative data that most apps already collect.

“It’s the tipping of the hand that gets creepy,” he said.

Personalizing messages by revealing unique user information, including names and daily routines, can cross the line and turn off users, as witnessed in Target’s blunder.

Instead, Mr. Michaels suggests crafting messages in a way that user data goes unnoticed by the consumer, such as advertising baby products alongside home goods.

With hyper-relevant content side-by-side with somewhat less relevant offers, the user is likely to assume Target’s simply casting a wide marketing net, rather than using specific personal data.

Using data such as behavior and location to infer information and customize app messaging strategies can improve the brand experience.

Personalizing through contextual inferences
The National Football League has successfully used location data in its messaging to provide utility for the customer.

“The key question we want to answer is, how do we make the user’s life easier?” said Scott Goldberg, senior product manager for mobile at the NFL.

“It’s a huge responsibility to know where a user is located.”

Mr. Goldberg said the NFL takes user information and “turn(s) it around to focus on the customer and deduce what they need, not what the company needs.”

The NFL Super Bowl app zeroed in on two key points of interest – Super Bowl Boulevard and the Met Life Stadium – to send location-specific messages to app users. To encourage the audience to share their location, the app first explained the value of opting in.

In turn, more than 80 percent of the audience enabled location notifications that could be triggered by a geofence or beacon.

Another context cue for brands is personal interests, which the redesigned ABC News app uses to personalize content pushed to readers.

Peter Roybal, head of mobile product at ABC News Digital, said the team heavily researched user behavior before creating the app to ensure stellar functionality for its general audience, while also enabling messaging to be tailored to each user’s preferences.

The app enables users to star stories to indicate their interest and receive updates as the story develops.

Behind the scenes, these stars help ABC News build dynamic audience segments. Tags associated with user behavior such as starring a story can trigger push alerts when new information matches that segment.

The personalized inbox feature also helps users track and read stories at their leisure. This feature has been well received, with more than half of the audience using the ABC News message center in its first few months.

Understanding the user to thoughtfully frame app messaging
In developing a personalized messaging strategy, brands must understand three elements: the user’s wants or needs, the user’s context and the specific actions or attitudes that the brand wants to encourage.

But the NFL’s Mr. Goldberg cautions brands not to overreach in using the mounds of data shared by users. Focus is key.

“Our users have NFL Mobile because they are football fans,” he said. “We have to take that really seriously. If we start messaging a bunch of stuff unrelated to football because we know your location, then that crosses a boundary.”

ABC News built its app to adapt to the time of day because people consume content differently in the morning, afternoon and evening.

Based on audience engagement patterns, the team developed each segment through a specific paradigm.

“We know in the morning a user is running out the door and only has time for a quick bit of text, so we have a morning edition,” Mr. Roybal said.

“Later in the day, you may have more time, so we have a best reads section,” he said. “In the evening, people watch a lot of video, so we have a video recap of the news for that day.”

By allowing users to choose how they get news and by sending only major breaking news and top interests via push, Mr. Roybal says ABC News has found its sweet spot for personalized messaging.

Building a better engagement strategy

When offering advice on creating a messaging strategy, mobile leaders emphasize serving a need and providing value for the audience through the least invasive means possible.

Atimi’s Mr. Michaels views login as a currency. Many users will not log in or enable push or location unless they are assured that doing so will answer their specific desire. For example, the NFL’s app provides immediate delivery of Fantasy Football updates.

Mr. Michaels suggests that brands might adopt social platform logins to gain audience information, or they might encourage social sharing and then crawl that data.

Evolving personalization efforts are key in refining a brand’s app.

ABC News’ focus moving forward is to expand the granularity of behavioral and content tags to better differentiate between light and heavy users, as well as gauging the level of interest in a topic or story for users, and appropriately adapting content.

THERE IS A mountain of data ready to be mined, brand leaders say, but the key will be whether brands use nuggets of information to drive greater value for the user, or if they treat mobile data like a gold rush, pushing for hyper-personalization that can alienate many users.

The most successful brands will find a balance between respecting privacy and making the most of users’ preferences to deliver messages that ultimately enhance customers’ lives.

Brent Hieggelke is chief marketing officer of Urban Airship, Portland, OR. Reach him at