The possibilities and pitfalls of website personalization.

"Advertising is, actually, a simple phenomenon in terms of economics. It is merely a substitute for a personal sales force--an extension, if you will, of the merchant who cries aloud his wares." 
~Rosser Reeves

In the B2B digital world I inhabit, online personalization has reached the "we must" phase. Clients are saying we must deliver personalized site experiences based on past purchases. We must create mobile experiences pivoting on location. We must offer messaging and content that speaks to each visitor's industry, even to the specific company. We must speak to specific technology needs at just right technical level.  In short, if you want our work, agency people, you must deliver brilliant and effective and #moreyourwaythanburgerking customer experiences.

Of course, personalization is nothing new in marketing. Just about anyone who's worked in the industry for over a decade has done a "personalized" direct mail campaign. Yes, I've been at it longer than a decade, so yes, I did plenty of "Dear <name>"work. The targeting based on certain factors--where the potential customers lived, what kind of car they drove, the number of pets they had--seemed to have potential. But there was nothing personal about the personalization. It was your name, maybe in an interesting font if you were lucky.

However, in the land of digital, marketing can be far more personalized than just a name shoved into a salutation. Some would say scarily so. Location, past purchases, previous browsing--these are merely the basics. Mash up the long trail of data that is you with some freakishly specific third-party data and what do you get? You get Rosser Reeves' "substitute for a personal sales force." But instead of merely crying aloud his wares, he's coming to the screen nearest you, informed about what makes you tick.


Of course you've seen the Minority Report world of advertising. Of course that'll be possible someday, probably not that far in the future. But let's talk about what's possible right now, with an eye towards what's most applicable to B2B.

Possibility 01: Convenience and usefulness
An airline site that remembers my home airport, a rewards app that proactively lets me know I have enough points for a suite in my favorite city, and a retail clothing site that has a sense of my aesthetics. These might seem basic, but that's their brilliance. At its best, digital personalization often equals life simplification.

Possibility 02: Understanding
If you know I'm a hardcore tech-head, get me to the gory details quick. And speak my language fluently, with none of that annoying neophyte baby talk. Psychological studies have shown mimicking to be a powerful bonding tool, and has even been shown to increase tips. So nothing like delivering micro-targeted content to bond with a customer.


Yet not all's right in the land of "right content for you, right when you need it." Just because I know a few things about you doesn't mean I can sway you. Otherwise, successful dating would merely require intensive data gathering. Here are a couple ways we might come short with personalization.

Pitfall 01: When did I become a stereotype?
Hey, just because someone's in construction doesn't mean he's a hardhat-wearing, country-listening hammer swinger. What if he's the CFO of Bechtel? More likely a data-driven, Rolex-wearing shareholder meeting leader. It's easy to default to stereotypes, and it's easy to get burned by them.

Pitfall 02: Where did all the surprise go?
Call this the Steve Jobs "a lot of times customers don't know what they want until you show it to them" principle. With personalization, you can end up winnowing out the unexpected that resonates, delights, and surprises. And how do you find the unexpected? Well, that's where marketing requires moving beyond connect the dots.


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