Marketing Buzzword Wars: Personalization Abandoned for Relevancy and Context

No one would argue that marketers shouldn’t personalize messages to their customer. Personalization has been a cornerstone of direct marketing since the beginning. However, marketers are increasingly choosing other words to describe how they tailor their messages. In a recent BuzzFeed article, brands like Walmart, Macy’s and Gap are choosing to use the word “relevancy” instead of “personalization.” And there are some compelling reasons why.

With the amount of contextually relevant data now available to marketers, the term personalization seems dated, limited, and even “invasive and robotic,” according to the article. The key is how to leverage that data in a way that makes the message more valuable to the recipient without crossing into “creepy” territory.

Most consumers know that brands have a lot of their personal information and are using it to market to them, but they don’t want to be reminded of it through overly obvious ploys. Even the word “personalize” leads consumers to think of “personal data,” which they’ve been trained to guard closely to avoid being the victims of identity theft. As a result, personalization is losing its luster.

Relevance vs. Personalization

Relevance is being established as a way to talk about tactics that go beyond simple personalization. With relevance, the marketer actively selects information that will deliver value to the recipient based on a multitude of factors – whether browse behavior, buying patterns, or life stage. Relevance is more one-to-one marketing and less broad market segmentation. In short, just because a message is personalized doesn’t mean it’s relevant and appreciated. And as a marketer that is the key to maximizing customer lifetime value.

Of course, personalization and relevance are just marketing buzzwords, and buzzwords have a shelf life – even relevance. While marketers will never abandon relevance entirely, its status as the top buzzword in digital marketing is being threatened by another one in ascendancy – context.

Context vs. Relevance

Over the last 18 to 24 months, “context” has taken digital marketing by storm. Marketers are embracing the term to describe marketing that is “in the moment” and “hyper-relevant” with a focus on delivering value to consumers. With all the real-time data now available to marketers (device-type, location, weather, inventory, etc.), “relevance” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Contextual marketing moves beyond promoting an item based on demographic information and past purchases, taking into account dynamic data attributes that are changing all the time. At a time when consumer attention is scarce, respecting their time and delivering significant value with messages based on their current state or situation is imperative. In essence, it’s a new marketing contract with the consumer. It’s one that promises to always deliver value based on their current circumstance: where they are, what screen they’re looking at, what they’re interested in, and what’s happening around them. All this data is rapidly becoming available to marketers, thanks to constant connectivity, connected devices, and marketing systems that can understand and act on it.

Defining How Marketers Deliver Customer Value

It would be a lot easier if marketers would all agree to standardize their definitions for personalization, relevance and context. In doing so, they could fall along a maturity curve as marketers embrace real-time situational data to better deliver value to their customers. To start all this effort I propose the following:

Personalization: The basic customization of marketing messages to include static or slow-changing profile data commonly stored in CRM systems: demographic, sociographic, psychographic, purchase history, life stage, etc. This is the low bar of marketing.

Relevance: Individualized one-to-one messages that go beyond simple personalization to include more dynamic data attributes such as browse behavior, call center activity, channel engagement, device type, etc. Relevance is where more advanced marketers are today or are actively working toward.

Context: Situational messages that automatically refresh in real-time based on changing consumer and business circumstances. Changing consumer data includes location, device type, and sentiment as well as external factors like weather and traffic. Changing business data includes inventory, pricing, store location, and hours. Context is the high bar of marketing that is focused on delivering value to customers through highly relevant experiences at the point of interaction.

Wired, Tired, Expired

A fun way to think of how these buzzwords relate to each other is to plug them into a classic meme from Wired Magazine: “Wired, Tired, Expired.” The chart below shows the relationship context, relevance, and personalization – along with a few other marketing buzzwords, just for fun.


Context is here to stay. The data that enables it will only get better, and consumers will gravitate to brands that use it best. Circling back to the BuzzFeed article, there’s a quote from Helen Vaid, vice president of customer experience at, that sums up the transition we’re in quite well:

“It’s funny because people use the word personalization, and I always use the word relevance. You have to give the relevant experience to the customers at that point in time, and it should be relevant contextually.”

Homepage image via Shutterstock.

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