Eye On Personalization

Visitors to CBSNews Mobile this week will experience something a bit new and novel for the world's most "personal" device: some actual personalization. For the past few weeks, CBS partner Aggregate Knowledge has been analyzing click paths among the site's users to produce personalized headline recommendations that now appear at the top of the home page for registered members.

The engine is designed to leverage the wisdom of the crowds to improve discoverability. After only a few days of using the service, my headlines tend to skew to politics and economics, with a couple of human-interest stories thrown in later in the day. I can refresh the page and get a slightly different mix with each reload, suggesting that the engine is working in real time pretty effectively.

"What we are trying to do is make the site easy to use and provide easy discovery," says Jeff Sellinger, executive vice president, CBS Mobile. The most personal device is in dire need of greater personalization. For news sites like CBS Mobile, the scroll through irrelevant headlines can be relentless. Anything that can float relevant shortcuts to the top is welcome and, Sellinger, hopes, encourages more adoption. "The more we do [to personalize] the more we will see people use the sites and use mobile in general."

So far I am finding the Your Headlines section of four links a bit more curious than fully satisfying, but the machine and I have not had much time to get acquainted.

I was surprised to find that most of the stories being pushed to the surface actually have older datelines, going back four or five days. CBS tells me that this is a part of the design. The Aggregate Knowledge engine is using my own usage patterns and is able to deliver relevance out of the archive. The most current headlines are being driven more by the editors in the standard news sections further down in the scroll.

I am not quite sure about this arrangement. When I come to a news site, am I expecting to get fresh, breaking and generic news on top -- or personalized, but perhaps older, stories? Both is the obvious answer, but perhaps the next stage of mobile personalization will let me choose the layout so I can also determine which content I see first on the limited screen.

The discovery piece of the equation comes when I do drill into a story and get a section of "Other Readers Like These" links, which are based on common click paths from other readers of the story. This is interesting, in that I can see a difference in paths coming off of a story about the Polygamy sect from those I see coming off of a suicide bombing. Still, I tend to see the same headlines popping up in all of the recommendation categories, perhaps suggesting that news hounds generally are following similar paths.

While Weather.com and ESPN Mobile appear to be among the most popular WAP destinations right now, the fight is on among general news brands to differentiate themselves in the market. Clearly, mobile is more than an opportunity to extend brands. It's also an opportunity to retrieve lost fans. Honestly, CBS is not a TV news source for me, unless you count "60 Minutes" and Letterman. I watched Dan Rather a number of years ago only because I was certain this tightly wound ball of string was bound to unravel one night on live TV. I wanted to be there to see it. My programming plan for CBS is not to fire Katie but to swap her with "CSI"'s David Caruso. I would pay cash money to see that deadpan overacting applied to every news and fluff item.

But I kid because I love. Otherwise invisible to me for news, the CBS brand was early to market with mobile SMS news alerts that pushed me to the WAP site. And when they got me there, I found the level of seriousness with which the team regards mobile impressive.

For instance, dedicated video news personalities deliver items that are contoured for mobile. According to Sellinger, the mobile site had 75 million page views in the last quarter and 5 million uniques. "The combination of a push and pull is a very powerful thing," he says. "We have a high percentage of people consuming more of the story after they get the alerts."

There is a real opportunity for brands to reacquire users they may have lost in the last platform wars. For instance, I tend to rely on CNN both on-air and online for general news, but I find its SMS alert cycles too aggressive and frequent. CBS's alerts are more judicious, and in that sense embody some of the restraint I identify with the "Murrow Boys." That said, I find USA Today's mobile site the best for scanning headlines quickly across news categories.

Meanwhile CBS is signaling to users its mobile readiness and perhaps inviting us to revisit the brand's famous editorial judgment. In other words, a new platform can liquefy media brand loyalties.

Whatever the early foibles and limitations, the time for greater personalization in mobile has come. Anything that saves a click on this medium is going to pay off for users and publishers. CBS Mobile's first stab at this will be interesting to watch evolve as Aggregate Knowledge analyzes more patterns and my own usage profile becomes more precise. We need to make progress here.

Personalization will be a real differentiator among content providers, especially in commodified categories like news. Lord knows the carriers have been slow to do what is right and necessary to move mobile content consumption forward, so the publishers better take the lead.

But I am telling you, I can hear The Who warming up now with the lead-in music. "The CBS Evening News with David Caruso" would play everywhere with everyone. No personalization required.

Tags: mobile
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