Personalisation – from mass to me

A friend recounted an interesting story last week. He was looking to switch his internet service provider (ISP) so he reviewed what was on offer. After a bit of online research he decided to switch provider. A week after the switch he received a call, on his landline phone, from one of the ISPs he had considered. They said (and I’m paraphrasing here); “we’ve noticed you’ve been looking at our internet packages online, can we make you an offer?”.

This alternative ISP was in fact his mobile phone provider. He has a distant relationship with them: he is a pay-as-you-go and feature phone user. He does not recall providing them with his home phone number and rarely tops up his phone. Rather than this being a positive experience, he was ‘creeped-out’ and promptly ended the call. The offer was a week late, but it was recent enough for him to question: “how did they know it was me browsing their website on my laptop?” and “how did they get my home phone number?”

Every internet users’ digital footprints are collected and re-used for marketing purposes. But the aim of the resulting action is to improve a business’s performance and the customer experience. This ISP hit the “uncanny valley” problem where brand attachment takes a nose dive when personalisation goes too far. The uncanny valley phenomena originated in robotics, but it can also be applied to marketing. Consumer research by Colin Strong has even proven it’s existence in this context. Despite these challenges, personalisation is key to the evolving way relevant information is discovered on the web.

The web not only connects the world’s information it weaves in and out of billions of people’s lives. It knits together everything from our social interactions to our entertainment needs. Access to the web is shifting, from desktop to mobile and soon wearables and the internet of things. Small devices and app based interfaces need lots of bite-sized bits of information. Our information needs from the internet are thus changing. From a search-based experience (sifting through deep levels of information on a PC/laptop) to a mobile experience where thin bits of information are pushed to the user. Tom Goodwin calls this the ‘Thin-ternet’. He argues this pervasive and ambient phase of the internet is a huge opportunity for advertisers. He states:

“We’re going to see a web that establishes our needs and unknown wants and surfaces up information as a thin ‘card’ or ‘notification’ that provides us with key nudges at that time. In this model, we don’t need to search — the right information at the right time just finds us.”

Most would agree, digital commerce has a huge opportunity to create better experiences in this next phase of the web. But, for opportunity to become reality, personalisation needs to evolve from ‘mass’ to ‘me’. For personalisation to be effective it needs to access identifiable personal data. Mass personalisation is at best guess-work using demographic types and customer segments. At worst it harvests identifiable personal data without consent from the individual. This approach leads to the uncanny valley or creepiness effect experienced by my friend. ‘Me’ personalisation puts the individual in control. The individual authorises trusted brands to personalise their digital life using their personal data. With the individual in control of their personal data they can benefit from personalisation. The transparent use of personal data would end the creepy side-effects of mass personalisation.

Making this shift from ‘mass’ to ‘me’ requires a reversal in data control. Brands, the traditional data controllers, need to relinquish this role to the individual. A scary thought for many brands who are re-focusing their business on the data economy. Yet, as a result, brands will have a much richer ‘unified’ view of their customers which will enable closer customer relationships. ‘Me’ personalisation will become symbolic of trusted relationships between two parties that understand each other. Only then will the opportunity of this next phase of the web become achievable.

Also published on Medium.

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