Making Personalization Truly Personal

If one’s things for certain, it’s that nothing is for certain for very long, at least in the world of technology and eCommerce. Best practices are, at best, fleeting when they pertain to a specific technology and not to a core business purpose or a brand. So what about the best practice of personalization?

Over the years, the concept of personalization as applied to eCommerce sites has changed drastically as new technologies enabled the level of experience personalization to become deeper and more meaningful than one would have thought possible a few years ago. In the early 1990’s, when client server was all the rage, “personalization” was really what folks today would call “configuration”. Giving a user a few choices to “personalize” their user experience seemed awesome, but by today’s standards, that was clearly configuration based on a few canned options. Not bad for its time, but certainly the model-T in comparison to today’s Bugatti expectations.

Personalization now pertains to a vast realm of possibilities which companies have to be smart enough to use both with and without direct end-user interaction. For example, utilizing user supplied information to offer anything from product recommendations to targeted ads, is a way to use account or profile information to create a more personalized experience for someone browsing your site. A lot of folks may take exception to using such information, but as long as the user permits it, then using it in accordance with a stated privacy policy can provide real value to a user. However, it is important to be overtly obvious that you are using someone’s personal information to benefit them, rather than to solely benefit your company. Amazon’s product recommendations are such an example.

Enter social media and the personalization landscape becomes even more complex. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like offer countless opportunities to truly personalize a user’s experience. Incorporating external social networks in a commerce sense can be such a motivator to move (one way or the other) on a purchase, that I often equate social network influence on online buying behavior to that of peer pressure within a close knit group of teenagers.

Peer Pressure

what an individual derives from an interaction is usually equivalent to what they are willing to invest in that interaction

There are two major branches to personalization now that social media has come into play. I divide them like this, being a little tongue-in-cheek with the terminology:

  • Personalization: The methods used to design a user experience that caters to an individual needs and desires based on information they have supplied directly (e.g., profile and account information) and indirectly (information that has been aggregated about their purchases and browsing habits over time).
  • Peersonalization:  Focusing on how customizing a user experience based on intelligently analyzed information from a user’s social network. Identifying peers and other influencers, the level and type of influence and how best to position peer feedback and experience is what provides a unique and meaningful experience for an individual user.

Peersonalization requires moving beyond pulling in a feed from Twitter based on a search term or showing the user a list of Facebook friends that like a page or site. This is about finding value in a user’s social network and presenting it to them in a sensible context. It’s easy enough to ask a user for permission to connect to their online communities via Facebook Connect or the Twitter API. You can then look at posts, likes, and tweets within their social group and present them on a page. What requires a bit more effort is searching communities for information relevant to the customer, not only keyword searching, but second and third level searches that offer the opportunity to derive real value from a customer’s peers.

As a brief example, consider a user currently browsing your site looking for a Canon DSLR. Assuming the customer has given a site permission to access their Facebook data, a quick approach would be to search Facebook for any of the customer’s friends (via their news feed) that mentioned “Canon” in a recent post. A more thorough approach would examine Facebook group names for photography terms (e.g., “Photography”, “Camera”, ) and present feedback only from Facebook users within that group. Yet another approach would be to show the customer users within their Photography Club group that had anything to say, positive or negative, about a Canon DSLR. A more refined approach would only show comments from friends within that group. Yet another possiblility:  Use geo-location services to figure out where the customer is and show a list of friends that have checked-in to company stores recently. There are a lot of possibilities, the accuracy of which depends on two things:

  • The way in which the accessible data is analyzed for information relevant to a customer’s current context
  • The willingness of the customer and those within their social network to share information

There are many reasons that people don’t want to share information with those outside of their social networks and there are many privacy concerns. There is a delicate balance here. As I’ve mentioned in other posts on privacy, what an individual derives from an interaction is usually equivalent to what they are willing to invest in that interaction. If a customer doesn’t want to share any opinions, experiences or thoughts with the online communities of which they are a part, then they’re not likely to reap much benefit in the long-term from those communities. The same goes for sites that integrate with social media;  if customers are unwilling to share via a social networks API, they’re are potentially limiting their personal user experience in the end. Of course, it is important for companies to understand that such data should be treated as proprietary and private information and it should be used solely to enhance the user experience. It should not be stored or shared with others in a way that can’t be replicated from a social networks API. In addition, customers should understand the privacy policies of sites that ask to integrate with their social data.

Mass Personalization?  Really?

One oxymoron that I’ve seen tossed around a bit over the years is the concept of “mass personalization”. That’s fairly funny, actually. Personalization that is done by focusing on the collective choices or behaviors of a large group will likely only result in a site that treats users as if they fall into one of several stereo-typical groups. A good example of this is the political stage and you have to ask yourself if you would treat all of your customers as “Democrats” or “Republicans”!  That’s not likely to work for an eCommerce vendor for long, if at all. Companies should be thinking about more than user segmentation, they need to be investigating the unique traits, behaviors and relationships that describe the individual customer. Thinking along these lines begins to change the way one thinks about defining the user experience. A properly tailored user experience may, in fact, create such a one-of-a-kind interaction, that no two user interactions with a site are identical. Of course, this is again dependent upon customer’s willingness to share data within their communities with sites that they trust.

User Experience becomes Unique Experience

The future of personalization is moving toward individualization, which I define as the ability of a site to recognize and respond to a user as an individual, based on learned traits or behaviors. This, combined with the concept of peersonalization, could give the user an experience that so closely matches their own perceived views it would be as if the site and feedback were created only for them. Imagine being in a store stocked with products in which you have an interest along with additional products that are inter-related, high-percentage up-sell opportunities, or the favorites of influential peers. Barriers to acceptance will come down. And when that happens, the anxiety associated with clicking the “buy” button decreases dramatically.

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