Forever Becoming: Paying Lip Service To Personalization

Personalization is among the biggest unkept promises of the online data economy. Apart from a handful of retailers and irregular users of recommendation engines on publisher sites, almost everyone in media talks a big game about personalization that they really don’t play. All that user data gone to waste. 'Tis a pity.

In the next few weeks I will be drilling into the topic of personalization from a few perspectives, from talking with people who have been thinking hard about the problem to instances where the power of personalized media delivery is clear. This week, however, I want to set the table with some interesting new data on the topic from British company eConsultancy. In its Quarterly Digital Intelligence Report, done in partnership with Adobe, the advisory took up the topic of personalization across a range of companies, asking them where they wanted to be vs. where they find themselves now.

Only 27% of marketers surveyed felt that personalization was already critical to their online presence. But a majority (52%) agreed  that the ability to personalize Web content was fundamental to their online strategy.



Really? Not so you can tell. In fact, as the questions got more specific about tactics and capabilities, it turns out that the ambitions for providing users with customized experiences were not being realized. While 41% of the marketers surveyed said they were “committed” to personalized experiences for their customers, less than a third (32%) say that their Web CMs even allow for personalization.

Nevertheless, 37% say that they are targeting personalized content in real time at their sites.  While some use personal data, 42% say they can personalize from anonymous information. Many use on-site behaviors and stated user preferences, and there is a fair amount of browser history and purchase history being used.  

When it comes to leveraging different types of data and measuring ROI from personalization, marketers still hold social data in high regard, with 88% saying that social graph personalization has a high impact, even more than purchase history (77%). In measuring impact of personalization, 70% use increased conversions, but 50% also consider engagement in time spent. But again, when asked more specifically about how personalization is deployed, the numbers plummet. Only 33% say that they use data to maximize conversions, and little more than a quarter benchmark their own personalization by testing different kinds of personalization.

Of course, some marketers call “personalization” slapping “Welcome back, Steve” on my Web site. For anyone with a modicum of digital savvy, that is closer to a slap in the face. It signals that the site knows you, and likely is tracking your every move, but it won’t use that data in any way that demonstrably helps your experience.

In the 15-plus years I have been covering digital media, I have seen countless attempts at introducing robust and meaningful personalization at both news and information sites and retail and brand sites. In the cases where the site relies on the proactive involvement of the user to state preferences and opt into a personalized experience, most publishers report extremely low levels of use and opt-in.

Most people, like the publishers themselves, like the idea of personalization rather than the work it requires of them to do it well. In the cases where more passive systems are used to personalize against behaviors, the results often are too select or subtle for the user to detect as a benefit.

Transparency in personalization is not just a matter of being forthright about the fact that you are tracking the user. It is a matter of communicating to users that they are getting some value out of the data exchange. Ironically, you want personalized experiences to feel seamless, but not necessarily look too seamless. 

I think that the emergence of devices makes personalization more of an imperative for all kinds of publishers. But smartphones, tablets, and even smart TVs, and connected appliances or cars will also help acquaint users with custom experiences. It is not coincidental that Flipboard continues to be among the most popular of all tablet apps. Along with rival Zite and a new app Trapit (based on the news aggregation site of the same name), these are personalized apps whose aggregation function is more valuable on screens with constrained interfaces. In essence, these device-based apps are helping to train users in the value and power of personalized filtering of content. I would expect users to bring back to the Web itself a higher set of expectations around publishers making better, smarter use of the data visitors hand over every nano-second.   

2 comments about "Forever Becoming: Paying Lip Service To Personalization ".
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  1. Barbara Lippert from, July 20, 2012 at 6:27 p.m.

    It can get worse than merely slapping "hi, Steve," on a web site. I've had experiences where I've been received with "Hi, Brandon!"

  2. Leanne Hoagland-smith from ADVANCED SYSTEMS, July 21, 2012 at 12:24 p.m.

    Funny, I just received a comment on my blog from a reader who said "Oftentimes I am getting either info that is too specific – or that is too general to be applied in my own context. With your article I was able to get something out of it, so…. Thanks;-).

    Just as speaking to an audience filled with so much diversity from experience to roles, etc., those who provide content have those same obstacles.

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith
    Author of Be the Red Jacket - blog

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