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Personalization vs. Customization

  |  July 13, 1999   |  Comments

Personalization vs. customization. Nope, they aren't the same. The web provides the perfect marketing environment for precision marketing because each individual can be uniquely identified, and a message can be tailored specifically for them. Learn the difference between customization vs. personalization and how to engage each prospect in a conversation through your web site.

Editor's note: This week marks the debut of a new writer for Precision Marketing. Cliff Allen, who is a colleague and co-author of former Precision Marketing writer Deborah Kania, assumes the helm this week. Kania is taking a well-deserved break to finish up her next online marketing book. For all you fans of this column, fear not Allen is completely capable. He has co-authored two Internet marketing books and recently, finished a third book about e-business intelligence. His background includes a variety of marketing, sales, and technical stints, with companies ranging from entrepreneurial start-ups to General Electric. The key to success in all of his activities has always centered on precise audience targeting and delivering a personalized message, Cliff says.

The concept of personalizing for customers is certainly not new. But the web elevates it to a near art form. The web is the perfect marketing environment for precision marketing, because individuals can be uniquely identified, and a message can be tailored specifically to them.

Think about how traditional businesses personalize their communication through their salespeople and support team. Many, in fact, are far beyond what the typical "personalized" web site delivers today. The reason is that traditional businesses focus on developing a real-life conversation with customers in order to understand what the customer wants. Who hasn't dined with a companion who requests so many changes to a menu item, that the order becomes essentially customized by the restaurant?

Which brings us to the topic of this column - customization vs. personalization.

If you've tried a variety of the MyPortal sites and have explored what they call personalization, then you know what to expect when you asked for a particular stock in your portfolio -- the site did exactly what you told it to do.

Is this customization? Or is this personalization? Most of the time when you request something different from the standard offering -- such as at a restaurant -- it's considered customization. When you have an interactive conversation with another person, it's personalization.

So, are the MyPortal sites that follow instructions really personalized, or merely customized, according to each person's request? This is more than a semantic difference -- it's the difference between letting the reader control his or her web experience versus content creators guiding the reader's experience.

I like customization, because I know what to expect on a page that I've customized. My start page is a customized news/search page that links me directly to the material I need frequently.

But it seems that the real benefit of personalization occurs when an individual has an "aha!" experience that occurs when the content adapts itself based on the person's profile, and provides something new, different, and possibly unexpected.

For the reader to experience the unexpected, there needs to be a content creator "behind the curtain" who prepares material, so that the personalization engine can tailor the content based on each person's profile. In other words, there almost needs to be a conversation between the content creator and the audience member through the web site. It's sometimes difficult to tell when a site is customized and when it's personalized. What makes this differentiation difficult is that a customized site can provide personalized content. When you add Amazon.com to your MyPortal stock portfolio, you know you'll see that stock (customization), but you don't know what today's price will be (personalization).

A content site that tailors links to news stories based on individual profiles is personalized, because the headlines change each day. This is a great time-saver, because the audience is working with the editorial staff to display new and informative headlines within a familiar, customized framework.

For marketers who want to engage each prospect in a conversation through their web site, full personalization is required in order to ask questions, listen to each person's answers, and observe their actions on the web site. This requires more than personalization technology, it requires an expert team of content creators who have worked with the different types of customers that a company serves and who know their information needs and product requirements.

Of course, the real question is not whether we use customization or personalization on a web site, but whether we meet the needs of our audience so they will feel comfortable with us, our company, and our products.

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Cliff Allen

Cliff Allen is President of Coravue, a company that provides content management software and application service provider (ASP) hosting for Web and email. Allen is coauthor of three books about Internet marketing, including the "One-to-One Web Marketing, Second Edition" (John Wiley & Sons, 2001).

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