Beyond Personalization: Programmatic Integrity is the Key to Customer Trust

Andrew Kordek

Indulge me for a moment as I walk down the Memory Lane of email trends.

2006: It’s a year after Sender Policy Framework moved us forward in sender authentication and a year before the iPhone debuts. On ExactTarget’s list of email trends for 2006, at No. 7 is the following: “Email will get more personalized.”

2009: A year before the iPad launches, we’re talking about the need to personalize emails “to individual recipients based on their needs and behavior.”

2012: “Relevance” pops up at No. 4 on a list of 10 email trends. Personalization is at No. 6.  

2016: Personalization is one of the usual suspects again in an Econsultancy survey, coming in behind segmentation, list hygiene, and optimizing for mobile but ahead of lifecycle email, dynamic content, and lead nurturing.

2019: We’re still talking about personalization–only now it’s “hyper-personalization,” along with interactive versus kinetic content.  

Echolalia in our trend predictions?

It looks to me that our predictions have descended into the condition the dictionary defines as “the meaningless repetition of another person’s spoken words as a symptom of psychiatric disorder.”

How do we extract meaning from all of this email soothsaying? I condensed the last 13 to 15 years of trend predictions into one graphic to get a handle on them. Lo and behold, look where Trends 15 through 2 point:

All these roads–content, storytelling, video, mobile design, artificial intelligence–lead to relevance. That’s great, but there’s a problem with our thought leadership. We tend to circulate around the same few concepts, and we don’t explain them in ways our customers and clients will understand.

Take AI and machine learning. I recently attended a webcast with an email service provider where they demonstrated AI and machine learning capabilities for 30 minutes. Dynamic content, in-depth personalization–you name it, they talked about it.

What did somebody ask in the Q&A following our presentation?

“How do I turn on artificial intelligence?”

There’s another problem. None of these trends address the real issue that confronts branding and marketing today–lack of trust.

We’re living in a world of distrust in 2019

I would sum up this issue in one concept:

It’s not about what’s next. It’s about what’s now.

Data breaches are announced almost daily, and each one seems to be bigger than the previous one. This list identifies the top breaches in just the first 10 weeks of 2019, many involving high-profile government, banking, gaming, and e-commerce brands (Dunkin’ Donuts!).

Here are just a few examples in the last year or so:

  • MyHeritage: 92 million registered users had email addresses and hashed passwords exposed in June 2018, but users weren’t notified until 8 months later.
  • Exactis: 340 million consumer and business records of 230 million people and 110 million businesses were exposed to the public.
  • Cathay Pacific: Private user information, including phone numbers, birth dates, frequent-flyer numbers, passport and government ID numbers, and specific passenger travel data, was breached.
  • Quora: 100 million users names, email addresses, and encrypted passwords were breached, possibly compromising other social media data.
  • “Collections #1-#5“: 773 million email addresses and 21 passwords were exposed in a cloud storage database in the first “Collection.” “Collection #2-#5” exposed 845GB of stolen data including 25 billion records that contained 2.2 billion unique usernames and passwords. This was data from previous breaches but was downloaded over 1,000 times in the first 24 hours via torrent sites.

The Edelman Trust Barometer measures how much people are freaking out about data security and privacy. In the graphic below you can see how the general population around the world has shifted their trust in 2019.

This graphic compares trust in institutions in both the world’s general population and its “Informed Public” group (college-educated adults in the top 25% for household income who consume and engage with media and business news).

The U.S. Informed Public group shows greater trust in institutions than its general population, although just barely.

This distrust fueled by lack of data security and privacy is fueling a record amount of legislation in the U.S., from the proposed GDPR-like American Data Dissemination Act of 2019, to the recently enacted California Consumer Privacy Act of 2019, and a host of other state initiatives from Oregon to Alabama to Vermont.

Programmatic integrity resolves both the quest for relevance and the distrust in data, technology, and brands

Personalization is the trend that survived the longest over the years in expert’s prognosticating about where email is heading and how marketers must respond. I don’t see this as the answer.

We can use predictive modeling and AI and machine learning to predict our clients’ next moves. I have yet to see a case study showing how deep personalization has paid off in client resource investment for long-term, long-tail ROI.

(I would love to be proven wrong on this!)

As a result, we’re overlooking a singular and sustainable trend that brings together all of those 15 trends I highlighted earlier.

It’s called programmatic integrity, which I define like this:

Programmatic integrity is how [our brand] will continue to adhere to sound, unimpaired, and ethical principles when trying to be more ‘relevant’ in our communications to our subscribers.”  

“This approach will consider current market conditions around the collection, use, misuse, or misinterpretation of use when leveraging data to offer a more personalized experience. [Our brand] will heavily scrutinize, assess, and adjust our data & execution practices regardless of market trends or pressure.”

This might not wow your subscribers, but it will serve their needs (and yours) better in the long run and pay off in ways that even deep personalization hasn’t demonstrated yet.

There are 6 strategic elements crucial to programmatic integrity

These strategies are the foundation of programmatic integrity:

  • Treatment and use of data
  • Blueprint to honor preferences
  • Roadmap for use of data for deep personalization
  • Testing and success methodology for including personalized content
  • Legal compliance on data collection and dissemination
  • Plan for email customer journey user experience, testing, and planning

Essentially, you explain clearly how you handle your customers’ data so that you don’t exploit them and their behavior. In other words, it’s how you live up to the rule “Don’t be creepy.”

You explain to your users how you gather explicit and implicit data; whether you use surveys, preference centers, or other sources; and how you will honor the integrity of those sources.

You need an internal blueprint for success that says, “At what level do we need to test for deeper personalization and move up with a methodology that does or does not include personalized content?”

You also need to figure out how to adjust the way you collect data, what your subscribers or customers expect, and how that will play out in a multi-step collection process.

The 7 tactical elements of programmatic integrity:

Once you figure out your strategies, you can move into tactics to carry them out:

  • Develop processes for acquisition and frequency management and unsubscribes
  • Fully implement new authentication standards, specifically DMARC *
  • Perform list hygiene regularly, including regular list maintenance plus email validation and verification
  • Control frequency and cadence  
  • Eliminate or pull back on underperforming  email programs
  • Develop a common measurement framework to assess email performance uniformly
  • Focus on relevance in email content

You can see that relevance, my No. 1 trend over the last 15 years, is on the list. But it’s meaningless if you don’t do everything else to build programmatic integrity across your program.

* About DMARC: DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance) is a sender validation system that sits on top of other frameworks like SPF and DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) and is designed to prevent fraudulent activity under your organization’s control.

If you don’t know how it works to protect your email safety and security, and your sender and brand reputation, take a little time after you finish this post to check it out. But don’t stop there. Be sure to implement it fully to stop malicious attacks like brand spoofing, which damages your efforts to build programmatic integrity. You can learn more about DMARC, or ask our Deliverability Experts for help.  

What I mean by implementing it “fully” is for brands to get to “p=reject.” Having “p=none” is like buying an expensive car with no engine. It looks great in your driveway, but it’s not going to take you anywhere. Similarly, setting “p=none” in DMARC means you don’t reject any email that flunks a DMARC check, while “p=reject” allows you to reject those emails.   

There are 4 questions to ask.

Use these to review your digital programs for their impact and effectiveness:

What’s at stake? Programmatic integrity involves continuous monitoring, not just in your email marketing but also in everything your brand does and how it’s viewed on the web, in email, and with any digital communication.

Who is affected and how? Suppose your systems are breached and key customer data is stolen. It could take years for this to come to light, but you must understand that it will affect a lot of people and damage your brand.

Does this program serve our customers’ needs or ours? You might say you want to launch a certain kind of personalized and relevant program, but you must assess your ulterior motives.

Helping customers achieve their goals will help you achieve you brand goals too, but do you need a campaign to persuade your customers that they need to part with highly sensitive information for their own good when, really, you need it for your own ends?

What are the implications? If you don’t take the necessary steps to build programmatic integrity, you’re leaving yourself open to fraudulent activity.

Everybody loves to fillet other companies when they do something dumb like leaving customer data unprotected in the cloud. It’s the loss of consumer trust and, subsequently, their business, that is the ultimate harm.


Programmatic integrity asks you to look at your email program in light of the age we live in, with what’s happening in the marketplace, new laws governing data privacy and protection, and near-daily data breaches.

We are pounding the drum constantly about operational efficiency, and we will continue to do that, but we need to look at the broader picture, too.

Consider how you use data and whether or not you are crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s before you go all in on something catchy like hyper-personalization.

Look at your program from all angles. We should have been doing this all along to build programmatic integrity, but, given current market conditions, it’s no longer an exercise to do someday at a corporate retreat.

You have to set aside time now and do it. You might discover you already use many of the tactics listed above. Now, you just need to take them to a higher or more consistent level.

The changes you make may appear insignificant. But, wouldn’t you rather be sure you have everything buttoned up? That lets you focus on the areas where you can improve in leaps and bounds. Machine learning, AI, and personalization won’t help you do that.

About the Author(s)

Andrew Kordek

Andrew Kordek is a Co-Founder of Trendline Interactive.

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