Who’s Mailing What! Recently released its report “18 Direct Mail Trends for 2021,” with predictions from leading industry experts about what they are seeing on the horizon for this year. It’s a terrific roundup, and many of these trends—triggered direct mail, programmatic direct mail, QR Codes (ah, vindication!), interactive direct mail, and more—are those I’ve written about here. But it was the first trend on the list that got me thinking.

First on WMW!’s list is “more sophisticated personalization.” At first, I thought, “Well, of course that’s number one.” I would expect it to be. But then I thought again. What, exactly, does “more sophisticated personalization” actually mean?

Unless you’re in certain industries, most variable data (at least in print communications) is still pretty simple. Name and address, offer, maybe some images. Sure, there are companies doing a lot more than that, but they aren’t in the majority, especially in their marketing documents. Even in verticals such as insurance, medical, and financial services, high-level print personalization is pretty unsexy. In the vast majority of cases, marketers aren’t doing deep dives of their data, trying to extrapolate what people want and need based on their individual characteristics and engagement with the brand. It’s largely feeding account information back into a document. So is this personalization? Yes, but is it the kind we’re talking about?

When I think about “more sophisticated personalization,” I think about marketing documents rather than transactional or transactional-like ones. This is where things get more complicated. I had a conversation this week about the irony of software being able to generate 100% personalized documents, dynamically, with every element assembled on the fly, contrasted with how simple most “personalized” pieces still are, particularly on the marketing side.

I started writing about the capability of producing full, dynamically assembled content long ago. When I think about how long ago it was, it’s actually pretty stunning. Two decades, almost. If it were only technology holding it back, one would think that, by now, this type of document would be mainstream. But it isn’t. It’s not because the technology isn’t there to do it—it is. It’s not lack of data either. Many marketers now have so much data that they don’t know what to do with it.

So what has been holding it back? Largely, a combination of effort and risk. For basic personalization—adding personalized maps, marketing different home renovation services based on the type of home someone owns—both are pretty low. It’s fairly easy to do and hard to make a really big mistake. But when you get into more than that, you’re looking at customer profiling, data analysis, development of personas, and a whole host of things that are more complicated, time-consuming, and costly—and the cost of getting it wrong is commensurate with the complexity. Is the risk/pay-off really there? Or would it be better to stick with targeting and segmentation, which has significant pay-off but much lower risk, and just do it really, really well?

To see the challenge, just look at the world of online personalization. It’s so easy to get it wrong. We’ve all seen and read about digital personalization fails, and we often have our own horror stories (say, of poking around for a new office rug, purchasing one, and then being bombarded with online ads for new rugs from other stores). Would more insight and sophistication get correspondingly better results? Possibly, and at extremely high volumes, that can translate into millions of dollars. But it comes with significant investment and risk, too. If you can make a little less revenue with a lot less complexity and risk, why not go the easier route?

There are marketers who do believe that the pay-off is there, and they have invested in strategies for getting it right. However, one of the challenges for PSPs is that once they cultivate those relationships, those marketers often move on to new employers. Then the PSP has to start all over. Then there is the whole data sharing/compliance challenge as companies with sensitive financial, medical, and other information try to understand how to balance the marketing value of the data with the need to comply with privacy regulations.

None of this is easy, and challenges like these have been holding back personalization at the most sophisticated levels for a long time. So if “more sophisticated personalization” is a prediction for 2021, is this the type of personalization we’re talking about?

Not necessarily. “More sophisticated” could mean simply that—more. In other words, “more sophisticated than what we're doing now,” or taking the next step in the level of complexity, whatever that is. If you’re doing simple demographic personalization of offers and images based on, say, gender or age, maybe you bump up to a more nuanced approach based on life stage. Or maybe you invest in additional lifestyle variables, such as membership in environmental groups or subscriptions to environmental magazines that allow you to tailor messaging and offers based on known affinities and priorities. Or maybe it’s adding personalized URLs to do surveys or as an engagement mechanism.

In conclusion, I’m not sure what the author meant by “more sophisticated,” but maybe that’s the point. It’s a flexible term based on your starting point. Whatever that starting point might be, it’s at least one step beyond that. What does “more sophisticated personalization” mean to you?

Is it time to “get more”?