The psychology of a personalized customer experience

Everyone’s chasing a personalized customer experience — but do customers care about it as much as brands?

Jennifer Clinehens
Jun 20, 2019 · 5 min read
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Photo by Alexandru Zdrobău on Unsplash

Note: This article is adapted from my book “Choice Hacking: How to use psychology and behavioral science to create an experience that sings”. Learn more and download the first chapter free by clicking here.

It seems like every company is chasing personalization. In fact, almost 70% of brands surveyed in a recent Everstring report called it a “top priority.” It could be easy to write personalization off as a shiny object, if not for the financial returns.

In their 2019 Personalization Development Study, Monetate outlined the ROI of personalized marketing:

  • Personalized marketing drives growth: 93% of companies with an “advanced personalization strategy” saw revenue growth. Only 45.4% of companies without a personalization strategy saw equivalent growth.
  • The higher the investment, the better the returns: Companies with ROI of 2x or more said personalization made up at least 20% of their marketing budget.
  • Personalization drives long-term customer value: Brands that had the highest personalization ROI (3x or more) focused on loyalty as their top KPI. Companies with lower ROI targeted short term measures like average order value.

It’s clear there’s evidence supporting personalization. It compels customers to act, and they’re actively asking for more. In a recent study, Infosys found that 31% of customers wish their experiences were “far more” personalized.

But why?

The answer lies in a psychological principle known as the Cocktail Party Effect.

Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

What is the Cocktail Party Effect?

The Cocktail Party Effect was discovered in the 1950s by a British Cognitive scientist named Colin Cherry.

Cherry wanted to understand what people focus on and why. After researching the dynamics of a noisy room, he discovered something interesting. Our brain separates overlapping conversations into different auditory streams. It can then decide to ignore information that isn’t relevant.

How do our brains decide what information to pay attention to?

The Cocktail Party Effect states that people focus on information relevant to them. According to a study published in the journal Brain Research, a key trigger for “tuning in” is when people hear their name.

Given the research, it makes sense that brands start personalization efforts with a customer’s name.

But the Cocktail Party Effect shows if we go deeper, relevant content can drive incredible results.

What is “true personalization”?

Personalization isn’t about getting your customer’s first name right then spamming them with impersonal ads. As Seth Godin says:

“[Personalization] is a chance to differentiate at a human scale, to use behavior as the most important clue about what people want and more important, what they need.”

True personalization is deeply understanding your customer’s journey. Once you know what they need, you can serve them the right message at the right time, and drive business results.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

How to apply the Cocktail Party Effect to your customer experience

1. Get specific about your customer’s world

In a recent study, Accenture found the personalization tactics that have a direct effect on buying behavior:

  • Know my name: 56% of customers would rather buy from a retailer that recognizes them by name.
  • Know my past: 65% of customers prefer to buy from a retailer who “knows their purchase history.”
  • Know what I want: 58% of customers prefer to buy from a retailer that recommends options based on their past purchases.

Here’s an example of the Cocktail Party Effect in action:

In this email from jewelry brand Monica Vinader, the brand uses customer data in a smart way.

They’ve not only customized Kim’s name in the email (“Made for You Kim”). They’ve also used images of “K” monogrammed jewelry, and shown a necklace based on Kim’s past purchases.

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Source: Campaign Monitor

2. Personalize your marketing’s visuals, copy, and message

In their 2018 Ecommerce Quarterly Report, Monetate discovered that just three pages of personalized content can double conversion rates.

Monetate also found that the value of personalization compounds with each experience.

As you can see from the data below, true personalization does more than increase purchases. It gets people to add items to their cart more often and drives down cart abandonment rates.

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Source: Monate 2018 Ecommerce Quarterly Report

3. Go deeper with data — and be transparent

Your ability to personalize effectively is directly tied to the state of your brand’s data.

And if the data is there, but it isn’t in shape, getting to the right insights might mean digging a little deeper. Further research could take the form of progressive profiling, marketing automation, or just asking your customers if the marketing they’re getting is right for them.

Another example of the Cocktail Party Effect in action:

EasyJet, a British low-cost airline, made a company milestone relevant for their customers.

Instead of making their 20th anniversary about the brand, EasyJet focused on the consumer. They transformed people’s data into a celebration of their travels with EasyJet:

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Source: Campaign Monitor

The bottom line

Personalization might be a top priority for brands, but most haven’t achieved their ambitions.

And that’s a problem because, according to Gartner, the stakes are high. In a recent survey, they discovered brands are at risk of losing 38% of their customers because of poor personalization.

There’s no magic button you can press to become immediately personalized. It’s a tough process that requires marketers to work closely with IT, operations, and digital teams.

But at the end of the day, the potential for revenue generation is huge. The science supports it, and customers are asking for it.

So instead of asking if you should focus on personalization, the better question is, “How can we prioritize it?”

Choice Hacking

Writing at the intersection of psychology, science…

Jennifer Clinehens

Written by

Behavior change strategist. Use science and psychology to improve design, CX, UX, marketing, habits — subscribe at

Choice Hacking

Writing at the intersection of psychology, science, business and design

Jennifer Clinehens

Written by

Behavior change strategist. Use science and psychology to improve design, CX, UX, marketing, habits — subscribe at

Choice Hacking

Writing at the intersection of psychology, science, business and design

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