Last weekend, like most weekends, I started Saturday at my neighborhood coffee shop. This is how it usually goes: I walk in, set my stuff down at an open table, then order my Americano.

This weekend wasn't too different. Except by the time I was ready to order, the barista had already placed an Americano on the counter with a post-it stuck to it: "Lauren :)."

Made my day. I paid for my Americano with an extra big tip.

If I described this story in marketing buzz words, I'd say I had a personalized experience, which is true. But the problem with buzzwords is they're used too generally and in different contexts, and it becomes difficult to understand what, exactly, someone means when they use them.

I think my coffee shop experience should be the gold standard of a personalized experience, so it's what I'll use to define the term. Anyone hoping to create something similar should:

And because we're talking about marketing and sales, the goal should be that all of these things add up to more revenue.

So what happens when we take a personalized experience and try to deliver it at scale?

The whole thing falls apart. Not only logistically, but emotionally, too.

But that's what marketers are being asked to do right now: deliver personalized experiences at scale.

It's a trap—because when we try to scale something, we don't rely on humans. We rely on technology. And you cannot take something that relies on a one-to-one human relationship and turn it into something that technology does for us.

Personalization at scale is an oxymoron. Some are accepting it as a challenge.

Part of the problem is that we use "personalization" too broadly and freely. If we agree to the definition of a personalized experience that I attempted above, we can also outline a number of things people might mean when they talk about personalization:

When we about scaling within each of these categories, things start looking up!

  • We can encourage participation at scale, whether it's polling attendees at an event or encouraging people to start a conversation with a chatbot.
  • We can do humanization at scale. Think about this as the inverse of personalization: instead of trying to wrap each member of your audience in a cocoon of personalization, invite them to understand you as a human. You're more than the company you represent. Your audience knows that, so let them experience it.
  • We can create customization at scale. This happens all around us. Think about Spotify's Discover Weekly playlist, or the products you can customize with Nike ID, or brands like Care/Of that invite you to take a quiz so they can recommend a specific product that best fits what you need.

Thanks to technology, all of this is possible at scale.

This isn't to say that we should ditch the idea of creating personalized experiences, but we have to be more accepting of the limitations that come with personalizing anything. We can't do it at scale—but we don't have to do everything at scale.

We can and should spend time creating high-touch, high-engagement experiences for the people in our audience who will benefit from them the most and help us reach marketing and sales goals.

At Event Farm, we think the channel that most effectively enables personalization is in-person events. There are stats that back up our inclination, and we make tech to help you enable it—but we don't pretend you can fully automate an event or rely solely on technology to host one.

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