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Personalization is Not Personal: 7 Tactics to be More Human

Dave Will
May 24, 2021

In a conversation with a job applicant, I was gushing about something with probably a little too much transparency a couple weeks ago and I apologized when I heard myself. Her response hit home when she said, "It's alright. It's like you're a real person!"

BOOM! That's exactly everything we stand for. Treating people like they're human goes a long way and creates a different kind of connection than a prepared announcement.

The people in your organization are not units, or attendees, or registrants, or even members. They’re people. They’re not clicks or opens. When they do something we’re so inclined to measure their activity and put a score on it. We want to tag them and watch what they’re doing. We want to keep showing them pictures and ads wherever they go so they might buy another thing. We have loads of lists and buckets and bubbles and segments that we put people into to try to understand them better. We send out surveys to dissect them as if they’re deceased frogs in formaldehyde.

It makes it so easy to forget... they’re people. Moms and dads, sons and daughters, people from distant countries and your neighbors. They have noise in their lives and some have no noise at all. Some are craving peace and quiet while others just want someone to smile at them. Some are in disarray while others are thriving. They have passions and careers; or, they’re looking for things to care about and a job. They’re people with reasons for doing things. They have needs.

It’s time to stop thinking about what we want and how to get it and start thinking about building stronger connections with people. With stronger connections, with true one-to-one interaction, we really start to understand each other. There’s a bond.

Here are some rules to follow when engaging your community:

Individuals are not statistics. Acknowledge that you may know what your membership needs as a whole, but it’s made of of individual people who may need something at any given point in time. And you can’t generalize that. And you can’t guess what that is. You need to constantly be open to listening to them and giving them an outlet to talk to you.

People talk to people. Organizations don’t talk at all. Organizations are just that: an organization of people, a group of people organized into a structure who can accomplish a shared goal... but they don't talk. They don't breathe. And they don't have feelings. People do. So when you get an email from an organization, of course it feels clinical and does nothing to build a stronger connection with you, another person. Send emails from people, not the organization. And please don’t use “donotreply” or “noreply” as the reply to address. You WANT people to reply and talk to you.

Ask a lot of questions. No, not a survey. Ask a lot of questions over time in a way where you’re prepared to take action immediately based on what the answer is. This is the start of a conversation. Some conversations will go deep and others will be transactional. It’s ok, as long as it’s an exchange.

Create real value. It’s conversations and the exchange that help create real value for people. If you can find out what one person needs and help them accomplish that, you’ve created value for them. I can help you do that at scale. It’s not hard.

Broadcasts are fine. I’m not suggesting that broadcasts are never valuable. They are when you know what it is a group of people needs. But unfortunately, most organizations have a disproportionate number of broadcasts and don’t listen well at all. In fact, they resist listening because it’s hard. And until recently, we haven't had the tools to do it well with so many members. Imagine yourself at a party and you meet someone who looks like they could be interesting. You say hello and then you’re bombarded with them telling you everything you ever or never wanted to know about them. And they haven’t stopped to ask you one question. You see where I’m going with this?

Forget about response rate. I have 3 sons. All teenagers. When I get in the car with them, the likelihood of actually having a conversation with one of them is slim. No matter what I ask them or how many questions I ask, they’re not going to talk to me. But sometimes they do and it happens when they’re ready. It doesn’t matter when I’m ready. But I better be there when they’re ready to talk. So I keep driving them places, waiting and hoping that this might be the ride they choose to tell me something. And I prompt them with questions. You won’t always hear from your members. And this is why when you embrace this idea of conversational engagement that I’m preaching about, the response rate doesn’t matter as much as whether or not you have a meaningful connection. Eventually, most people will talk into you... when they’re ready. Hence, why I hate surveys.

Don’t confuse personalization with personal. You can put lipstick on a pig… personalization tokens don’t trick anyone. There are some scenarios where it’s helpful if you’re referencing something that’s truly unique to me, but putting “Dave,” and my company name in a broadcast email to me does not make us friends. It doesn’t make us more connected. In fact, it just shows that you’re buying tools to fake connections. The word personalization has been hijacked. It doesn’t mean what it sounds like. It’s a way to take individualized information from a spreadsheet and plug it into a broadcast. Helpful, but not personal.

Of course we still need to sell things. We need people to renew their memberships. We need people to buy tickets to the show. But the point of all this is that they’re actually people with real needs. Maybe if we acknowledge that with genuine interest and authenticity, they will respond. And yes, you can do that with lots of people, if you actually care. Maybe if we start to have conversations with people - I mean really, a back and forth conversation rather than talking AT them in herds of personas - maybe if we get to know the people in our associations, maybe that will drive better results.

Is it hard? Is it possible? yes.

Ask questions. Listen. And engage in conversation.

One person at a time.

And just stop. I can hear you. “Impossible. We have 30,000 members.” It’s very possible. Send me a note. I can help.

Remember that job candidate I mentioned at the beginning of this post that called me out for being a real person? She got the job. You’ll meet her in a couple weeks.

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