You already know about variable data, right?  

It’s a customer’s personal information—their name, gender, address, purchase history, all that stuff. In marketing, we use variable data to personalize messages to customers. Well, we don’t. But some companies do… and they really probably shouldn’t. At least in some cases. Here’s why. 

Implementing variable data can come off as hokey or insincere.

You’ve just received a print piece for pantyhose or parkas or party supplies in the mail. Instead of addressing you as “Valued Customer,” it actually says your name. WOW. THEY MUST REALLY KNOW YOU. Or not. Because they don’t. I mean, maybe they do. But they probably don’t.  

Same thing goes for that email you just got from your local muffler shop. Are you impressed or surprised when a piece of marketing includes your actual name on it? Doubt it. Maybe six, seven, or even 10 years ago—but not anymore. By now you know that the message has not been written just for you. That’s why including text-based variable data in your marketing has become sort of a joke, but more on that later. 

Related: Legendary Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick predicted the use of variable data.

In the movie Minority Report, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same title, shopping malls use sensors to scan consumers’ eyes so brands can speak directly to each consumer by name. 

Using variable data can go horribly wrong.

How many times have you gotten an email that was supposed to include your name, but didn’t? That’s not a good look for the sender. Not only did the company fail to create any sort of personal connection with you, but it has also exposed its inability to execute a relatively simple technological task. Bummer, you know? For everyone.  

Variable data fail: A screenshot of an email shows the absence of the recipient's name, which is indicated by red circles at the top and bottom of the image. The center image is a logo for a food company: A knife, fork, and soon intersect within a circle above two green leaves.

Even worse than that, using variable data could muddle messaging with disastrous results. Get a load of this: Our creative director, Chris White, recently saw a digital ad that inserted his last name onto a t-shirt design. The company was using variable data to show Chris a product with his last name on it. Not a terrible idea in theory (implementing a person’s name onto a digital ad is more powerful than in print pieces or emails), but look at what happened: 

Variable data fail: Two screenshots depict two different black t-shirts with gold lettering. One reads "I'm not Superhuman but I'm White. You wouldn't understand." The other reads "It's a White thing, you wouldn't understand."

Yikes. Big-time yikes. Whatever AI is used to integrate Chris’s variable data—it was incapable of weeding out critical errors in context and content. As you can see in the example, a t-shirt that was supposed to celebrate Chris’s last name quickly devolved into a racially insensitive nightmare. Can you imagine seeing this pop up on your cellphone or computer screen? Holy smokes. Here’s the point: The risk of implementing variable data can seriously outweigh the reward.  

You can do better than variable data.

Any copywriter worth their weight should be able to pinpoint a target audience and speak directly to it. If you (or your team) can do that, you don’t need to “dazzle” your customers with variable data. Just tell them what they want to hear, the way they want to hear it, when they want to hear it. Sure, we’re inching ever closer to a complete and total robotic takeover, but for now, maybe just let your humans write for other humans. 

Related: How to find your company’s voice

But wait, surely there are benefits to using variable data?

Yes, there are. Up until now, we’ve only talked about text-based variable data—but we haven’t talked about media-based variable data—so consider this: As marketers, we can insert  personalized images, videos, and motion graphics or GIFs into our  messaging. Believe it or not, using media in a marketing message is a more subtle—and therefore effective—way to pique your customers’ interests. 

Here’s an example: 

Let’s say you’re in charge of marketing for a graduate school. You’ve developed a landing page for enrollment. The landing page includes a form that asks prospective students to indicate their academic interests. One prospective student selects math and science as their interest. Another selects theatre.  

What happens next? 

You could use this variable data to modify the imagery in your follow-up emails to these people. One email could include an image of an active chemistry lab as a backdrop. The other could include an image of a play being performed in front of a packed theatre. This more subtle, more sophisticated usage of variable can be effective because it helps the customer connect with the message without their ever really knowing it. It is smooth. It is natural. It is less noticeable, yet more effective.  

Related: Landing Page vs. Webpage (What’s the difference?) 

Can implementing variable data work for you? Sure. At this point, text-based variable data is pretty standard, so if you can do it right, go nuts—but just be careful, and don’t expect it to generate too much enthusiasm among your audience. As for media-based variable data? It could be a real difference maker for you and your customers.  

Thanks for reading!

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