The idea of improving engagement with prospects by personalizing their experience has been at the forefront of the marketing landscape for the last few years.

Don’t take my word for it: try conducting a search for a fairly specific item, like a crib for a newborn baby. After you engage with the search results a bit, browse onto your regular social media networks, favorite media sites, etc. Notice the type of targeted advertisements that you begin to see.

Assuming you are using standard browser settings, you’ve probably been bombarded with ads about buying a baby crib. Looks almost as if the Internet has you or your partner’s pregnancy test results, huh?

Thumb print bar codeMany digital marketing enthusiasts would call this kind of example a great representation of the huge leap forward that the world of marketing has taken. On the other hand, many consumers have expressed some discomfort with targeted ads. Major civic organizations have created petitions to stop Facebook from using browsing history to display targeted ads, and in a recent survey by Ipsos, nearly 70% of smartphone users in the United States say they are uneasy about having their activity tracked for advertising purposes.

How can your company use information about prospects to provide targeted advertising without making people uncomfortable? To answer that question, let’s take a look at exactly what type of marketing usually crosses the creepiness line.

Personalized Marketing: How to Walk the Line of Creepy vs. Brilliant

So what can be done to ensure that your marketing is valuable and appreciated by prospects, instead of making them feel uncomfortable? Part of the answer lies in the nature of the information: whether it is just personal, or both personal and intimate.

CMS Wire does a good job explaining this difference in a blog post using the example of a clerk in a brick and mortar grocery store. This particular clerk observes a customer looking in the gluten-free section. When the customer goes to check out, the clerk uses his personal knowledge of the customer to warn him that he has selected some items with gluten. This type of information is personal, but it’s not intimate: it doesn’t have to do with the most personal details of someone’s life.

On the other hand, the article asks how that situation would play out if the clerk overheard a customer talking on the phone to his wife about going on a date, and then suggested that the customer purchase flowers for her. Probably not so great for the clerk. This type of information is both personal and intimate: it has to do with someone’s love life, which most people don’t want to talk to marketers about.

Of course, there are plenty of companies that sell products aimed at the intimate areas of a person’s life: this rule might not be so hard and fast for them. The point is, if your marketing personalization is based around information that is both personal, meaning it involves an individual person, and intimate, meaning most people would feel hesitant about sharing the information in a professional setting, there’s a good chance that your marketing might be creepy!

Instead, you should be focusing on information that most people are fine sharing with a company, especially one whose products or services they are interested in. Facts like how many children they have, what city or community they live in, or what they do for work are good examples, although privacy limits are always subjective. Don’t forget to also consider your target market: if your company’s services or products are aimed at millennials, for example, you’ll probably have more leeway on privacy than you would if your target customer demographic is baby boomers.

IBM’s Watson: An Example of Brilliance instead of Creepiness

IBM’s Watson is an excellent example of the type of technology that most people consider to be brilliant and not creepy, even though it deals with plenty of personal information. The supercomputer is a cognitive technology that is designed to learn dynamically based on its previous experiences, the way humans do.

Its dynamic learning capability means Watson is perfect for taking personalized information and using it for the benefit of the user. In fact, in November of 2014, IBM announced that their Watson group would be investing in a company called Pathway Genomics, to create a consumer app that is able to provide health advice based on a person’s DNA.

Here we see a great example of the brilliance vs. creepiness scope: IBM has taken a potentially invasive product and made it brilliant, because it provides personalized information that is both welcomed and valuable for the user. It avoids the creepiness factor, too: while DNA is about as personal as it gets when it comes to user information, there’s nothing inherently sensitive or embarrassing about someone’s DNA.

Sorting out what’s creepy and what’s just excellent personalized marketing isn’t always easy. The principles outlined here are a good start, but if you really want to learn how to reach your target audience with marketing that they will appreciate, you’ve got to focus less on marketing techniques and more on connecting with people by creating a human to human, #H2H connection.