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Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2007 at 10:32 am

Why “Personalization” of the Web Scares Me

By Holly Buchanan
June 20th, 2007

Laptop Active WearI walk into a store. I’m wearing sneakers, running shorts and a slightly wrinkled T-shirt. I need to buy a nice suit for a presentation next week. The clerk walks up to me, takes one look and says, “Our athletic clothing is over here on the right. Here, let me take you there.”

Hey, it’s a perfectly valid conclusion. Judging by the data she had (I was in athletic clothing, I was even perspiring a little, though it was from the long walk from Cold Stone Creamery, not a 3 mile run). It was perfectly reasonable to show me the athletic department.

The only problem was, I didn’t want to go to the athletic department. I wanted to go to the designer suit section.

Personalization is a problem when it takes control away from the customer.

I was at a recent conference where everyone was jazzed-up about the ability to show customized content based on customer data. You track behavior and present content according to what that person does, or has done. You make observations and then make predictions as to what that person wants.

But what if your predictions are wrong?

This kind of personalization scares me because you are taking control away from the visitor. YOU are determining what he or she will see.

There are exceptions. For example, there are three things you want your members to do: If you’re a job board, you may want them to sign-up for an account, post a resume, and sign-up for a job alert. It makes total sense to customize content that says, “You’ve taken step one, but you still need to submit a resume and sign up for a job alert.”

Even “Customers who bought this also bought…” is OK. The visitor may have absolutely no interest in these items, but he or she is still in control.

What I’m talking about is, displaying different content for different customers. The customer is no longer in control of what he or she sees.

Do you really have enough insight into what someone is thinking, or what they truly want, from their observable behavior?

What if you have a woman getting ideas for a romantic getaway for her anniversary, and she’s looking at resorts that don’t allow children so she and her hubby can enjoy some much deserved quiet time? You deduce she’s not interested in vacations geared toward kids. But she’d also like to see family vacations to get ideas for the trip she and her whole family will take for spring break.

What if you have a section designed specifically for women, but men want to see it as well? (On The Leo Diamond site, we saw that our male personas left their pathway to visit the “Giving Him Hints” page. This is a page designed for women with ideas on how to give their guys hints as to what they want. But guys wanted to go there because, “Gee, she left a full page Leo Diamond ad on the coffee table…was that a hint?”)

What if you have someone behaving like a Spontaneous-type who only wants a quick overview of your services, but knows he has a very Methodical, detail-oriented boss who’s going to want a 50-page white paper? His first few clicks would peg him as a Spontaneous, but he still needs Methodical information for his (boss) influencer.

Don’t get me wrong. One of the most powerful things about the web is the ability to deliver customized experiences. Future Now is all about creating different experiences for different customers or personas. But nobody can’t predict with 100% accuracy exactly what every customer wants to see. That’s why we create different pathways or scenarios [define], but we let the customer choose which one s/he will take.

Instead of dictating what customers will see, we allow customers to decide which pathway is best.

This way your visitors can have customized experiences designed to meet their individual needs–but the customer decides those needs, not you. Don’t you think the customer is better equipped to understand what he needs?

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Comments (8)

  1. I agree. What I would like to see is an easy way to turn personalized results on and off. It would have to be something fairly prominent, and there would still be plenty of users who wouldn’t understand how to use it. But if the search engines want to go personalized they need to retain their flexibility.

  2. IMPORTANT CLARIFICATION:

    By “observable behavior” I was referring to data generated by visitor clicks on a website. That raw data can tell you what people do, but not why they do it.

    You CAN gain insight from observable behavior as long as you have context to understand it.

    Persuasion Architecture uses personas to give context to those visitor clicks. Personas give you insight into not only what people do, but why they do it. Personas allow you to understand motivation behind behavior, which is what really matters if you want to have true customer insight.

    Personas allow you to plan and measure those viistor clicks and assign context to better understand that behavior.

  3. Web Personalization is a double edged sword – GrokDotCom…

    When a site is redesigned to be more personalized several things change.  Page views, especially for some pages, may go down drastically, due to Ajax and Navigation changes – at least, that's what I've noticed.Another sticking point – Anal…

  4. I agree. I’m not a fan of anything that limits my results for me. I want to have that kind of control. Search engines should have a personalized results check box on the SERPs. That way users can turn it on or off in real time.

  5. Thought provoking post.

    “I was in athletic clothing, I was even perspiring a little”

    What if I’m a beverage saleperson and I offered you a bottle of water? I’d say there’s a good chance you’d want it. Especially since ice cream can make you thirsty. If didn;t want water I would guess that the majority of people who were offered the water in athletic clothing and perspiring would take it. I could be wrong, but I might offer 100 waters and see what the results are before I make a conclusion. I might even need to offer 1000. But at some point I might know for sure. Numbers don’t lie.

    As far as control it is a great strategy especially for content but vistors are always in control in a retail environment (unless their mouse freezes). Many times presenting more than one choice or pathway as you call it confuses users by presenting too many considerations. The “paradox of choice” effect if you will. How do I know? Data and testing.

    I guess the overall issue is personalizing based on personas as you mentioned in the diamond example. I’ve always maintained that personalizing to high-impact segments based on actions is better. Personalizing at the user level as we found out in the late 90′s and early 00′s is probably not scalable (or effective) for anyone not named Amazon or Google.

  6. Good post. I think in the brick and mortar world we still have a difficult time personalizing face to face when a real conversation is taking place. To think we can do it on the fly online is, like you said, scary. Loads of false positives.

  7. [...] Why "Personalization" of the Web Scares Me [...]

  8. The best use of Web personalization is to emulate the techniques used by your most successful salespeople — and not use it to restrict visitors from products or public information.

    In the physical world great salespeople ask questions, listen, then respond with suggestions that guide the prospect toward making a purchase.

    Since Web visitors are reluctant to answer these questions in forms, we need to use more subtle content-based ways to ask about their interests and needs.

    The personalization systems that tried to guess what a Web visitor should see were too expensive and too complex to have a positive ROI. That’s why most of those vendors no longer exist.

    It turns out that it’s rather easy to apply a small amount of personalization to a Web site, which most Web visitors seem to appreciate.

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Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at http://marketingtowomenonline.typepad.com She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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