Dear “| FIRSTNAM |” Personalization in an Age of Scale

Both Andrea Howe and I are experienced bloggers; 15 years and 1500 blogposts between the two of us.

We are far less experienced at newsletters and email marketing, but have been dipping our toes in that water. Yesterday we both stubbed those toes.

The Offers

Andrea wanted to announce a books-for-keynotes offer; I wanted to announce a sales event in Chicago. Each of us was very concerned to keep the personal quality we have tried to hard to develop over the years.

Rather than use an automated mailing program, Andrea went with her personal Outlook.  I chose the automated mailer route, but using a first name field where possible.

Murphy had a field day.

Andrea overdid the bcc capabilities of Outlook, generating error messages and returned emails in such a manner that she didn’t know who had actually received an email and who hadn’t.

My case was a little more blatant; not all the contacts in my database have been stored with first names, and the program, being the logical automaton that it is, addressed them by database field name. Thus some of you may have received an email addressing you as “Dear |FIRSTNAM|.”

Oops. I’m sorry.

The Minefields

We are all tip-toeing through minefields these days, attempting to keep deep links, while exploring weak links at the same time. Trying to keep things personal while looking for scale.  Figuring out how to be trusted, while trying to develop business online.

Sigh…sometimes it ain’t easy.

On top of it all, much of the market has become cynical. Not without justification! Note the headline in Time Magazine this week: LIBOR Scandal: The Crime of the Century?

I like to think I’m a little jaded, but I must confess I wasn’t expecting the following response from a now-former subscriber, who gave this reason for his desire to be taken off the mailing list:

“Because you started sending me emails with a fake person’s name as the sender. I guess not enough people are opening your emails so you think you have to fool us.”

Turns out he was used to receiving email from “Trusted Advisor Associates,” but when he saw mail from the same source with a person’s name, he figured it was a phony.

I guess the good news is, we’ve managed to create a trusted brand. But did it have to come at the price of my own name? (I can assure you, Andrea exists; I’ve met her. At least, that’s who she said she was…)

It’s an interesting problem. Andrea and I believe it’s not qualitatively different than at any other time, but the quantitative extent of things sure has ratcheted up.

The best solutions lie in transparency and collaboration.  That’s what we wrote about in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.


Since we both feel strongly about this, here are two things we can do.

  • If you’d like to get a free copy of our eBook Creating a Culture of Trust (taken from our new book) and be put on our mailing list, email me, personally, at [email protected]

We do believe there are people out there, and we want to continue to find ways to help us all to remember it.

A New Cybercrime…Spying On Your Spouse?

In his introduction to the Trusted Advisor Mastery Program launched in November, 2010, Charlie Green talks about the skills for being a trusted advisor including “doing the right thing, in the moment, as it’s called for.”

What does this have to do with cybercrime and spouses? According to an article posted by the Detroit Free Press, and a follow up article posted a few weeks later, a husband is currently being prosecuted under a state statute designed for trade secret theft. His alleged crime? Reading his wife’s emails; he used her password and found out she was having an affair. Of course, there’s more to the story in the articles. They’re divorced now.

As a former practicing lawyer, I find the legal issues interesting – see Peter Vogel’s technology law column in the e-Commerce Times. More intriguing to me as a business development and executive coach are the boundaries of privacy in relationships and what doing “the right thing” really means. After all, not everything we do in life can, or should be, regulated by law.

In a family, talking about boundaries help clarify expectations and behaviors. Respecting boundaries can engender trust; violating boundaries destroys it. In my home, my wife expects me to open her snail mail relating to financial or family matters, even if they are addressed solely to her. However, I don’t open her personal mail. For emails, Social Media communicating (including texts and Facebook), unless they ask, I don’t look at my wife’s or kids’ computers or cell phones. When I’m in front of their computers or cell phones for a reason, I may glance at the screen, but even that feels intrusive. It’s just the wrong thing to do in my family because of how we’ve chosen to respect each other’s privacy.

So while the criminal court determines in the Detroit case whether a statute has been violated, the rest of us need to pay attention to “doing the right thing in the moment, as it’s called for.” And when that involves boundaries in relationships, as I often ask my coaching clients, “What’s the best way to find out how other people feel, believe, or think?” about these types of issues. There’s only one right answer: ask them.

High-Tech Divorce

The nastiness level of divorces has been going up, thanks to technology, according to the The New York Times Business Section’s Tell-All PCs and Phones Transforming Divorce on Sept 15, 2007.  Bits and bytes are subpoenaed or surreptitiously obtained from cellphones, blackberries and PCs, and used to deadly advantage by plaintiffs and defendants alike in divorce cases.

This can’t be good for the causes of marital therapy or divorce mediation.

On the other hand, private investigators and lawyers make out well.  And all this technology is causing privacy laws to be rewritten.

This story is being written as being about privacy: how technology is increasingly invading privacy, and how our laws are evolving to protect—or not protect— our privacy.

But is it just about privacy?  What about trust?

What’s striking about the article is it’s an equal opportunity horror story.  It’s horrible to find out the awful things your spouse was doing all those years, the article suggests.  Yet it’s equally horrible to find out that your spouse is planting GPS devices on your car or hiring PIs to track down your every little cyber-indiscretion.

So, which is it? Is it worse to be the spy? Or the spied upon?

The subtext of both is victimhood, and an unwillingness to take responsibility. In short, a shortage of trust.

If I conduct a long-term affair, with elaborate attempts to hide it, then basically I’m a schmoe without much moral ground to stand on. If my spouse discovers me, I have little ethical room for indignation.  I have violated her trust.

If I suspect my spouse of conducting an affair, and choose to buy covert screen-copying software or filch her Blackberry rather than directly and calmly confronting her about my suspicion—then I am a sneak and a thief, and have already convicted her in absentia by my decision to go covert.

Some may quibble about the relative nastiness of each side, but basically it’s all ugly. It’s all about mistrust, lying, and the inability to constructively confront.

What it’s not about is privacy laws. Yet that’s the buzz.  Is email admissible in court? If it was a family computer, maybe so; if not, maybe not. Were passwords shared?  Then emails may be admissible.  And so on.

That’s how we get statements like this, from the article:

“If I were to tell you I have a pure ethical conscience over what I did, I’d be lying,” he said. But he also pointed to companies that have Internet policies giving them the right to read employee e-mail messages. “When you’re in a relationship like a marriage, which is emotional as well as, candidly, a business, I think you can look at it in the same way,” he said.

When did a marital  “ethical issue of conscience” become directly comparable to corporate policies on reading employees’ email?

When we started defining issues of ethics and trust solely in terms of issues of the law and privacy, that’s when.

Technology certainly raises interesting issues about privacy, as it does about private property and copyright law, for example.  But when you have a hammer, the world can look like nails.

We have a hammer—technology. The world is starting to look like the nail of the law—the answer to privacy, property rights, and patent issues.  We need to remember there are also screws and glues, not just nails.  There are relationships, trust, respect, virtues, transparency—even marriages. 

If you have to define marriage solely in terms of legal privacy rights, you might as well be describing flood insurance policies.  Same for any relationship.

Privacy matters can sometimes be trivial next to trust matters.