Personalization Myopia: Lessons From a Cruise Ship

  |  October 17, 2002   |  Comments

The best personalization provides site visitors with a little elbow room.

Sometimes my train of thought leads me to unexpected places. One of the conferences I am speaking at this month will take place on a cruise ship, which will be sailing off the coast of England for four days. What in the world does this have to do with personalization? Well, the reason they whisk people away and park off the Jersey Shore (old Jersey, not New Jersey) for four days is simple: They don't want people to be distracted by their everyday lives, familial responsibilities, or professional schedules. This is the idea behind offsite brainstorming sessions.

Many companies have a similar strategy for personalization: Restrict someone's view on your Web site, and you will have 100 percent of their attention focused on the products and services you have chosen to show them. For conferences and offsite brainstorming this strategy works very well and has proven itself to show great results. As a Web personalization strategy, however, this is not a good idea at all.

"My" View Isn't Narrow

One of the reasons "personalized" sites tend to fall short of their creators' intentions is they provide users a myopic view of a company's Web site offerings. Instead of focusing users, giving people this narrow perspective of your site actually serves to frustrate them. It makes them wish they could just see what everyone else sees and encourages them to log out or use a more robust site.

Here are the top three rules for providing personalization on your Web site to present a more robust user experience.

1. Don't personalize 100 percent of a page; allow for serendipity.

When providing personalization features, carefully balance a mixture of personalized and nonpersonalized content on the page. That way, people won't be itching to click "log out" in the hope of seeing new content or content less tied to the few interests they have expressed to your company.

I remember a funny story told to me by one of my clients. Before they had any personalization on their home page, they conducted a focus group. One of the questions was, "What do you think about personalization?" A woman remarked how impressed she was with the site because just the other day she had wanted to learn more about cooking Asian food. Lo and behold, the day she went to the site an Asian Cookbook was featured on the home page. Of course, the page wasn't personalized, and it was just dumb luck (which others would call serendipity) the book was featured on the day she saw it and was interested in it.

As a result, my team designed the new personalized version of the home page to include several nonpersonalized areas that would allow for this kind of serendipity.

2. Allow a broader perspective.

If your site's taxonomy is well designed, then you can use it to your advantage. Suppose, for instance, a user has told you (or you have discovered through data mining) he is interested in high-risk stock portfolios or Southern rock music. On a personalized page on which you show information relevant to those specific categories, also include a link to broader bands of information. The high-risk stock portfolio page might include a link to a broader view and include all high-risk investments (including things other than stocks). A broader view of high risk might lead to a page about average-to-high risk stocks for those who aren't as high risk as they thought they were.

The Southern rock recommendations on the music page might allow users to broaden their music perspective by seeing items in classic rock, the parent category of Southern rock. A broader view of rock (if the company in question has a larger product selection) would be Southern entertainment, which would include music, videos, and other Southern-styled entertainment.

By providing different ways for users to broaden their interests, we not only increase our chances of showing them something they will like, we also learn more about what they are interested in, allowing us to serve them better in the future.

3. Be up front about what you are doing.

The ideas surrounding serendipity and broadening personalization results have a downside I have discussed before, called perceived personalization. Perceived personalization occurs when people think you are personalizing content but you really aren't. When the nonpersonalized content isn't relevant (and most of the time it won't be), then serendipity becomes perceived personalization, and people will just assume your expensive personalization engines don't work all that well.

As with many things, full disclosure is usually best. In a section in which some items are personalized, some are "loosely personalized" (based on broader search criteria), and other items are not personalized at all, clearly label and indicate which is which. This will allow users to better understand how much stock they should put into what you are showing them. They will appreciate that you are trying to serve them on multiple levels, and they won't be angry at you for sometimes being wrong.

What's Your Mix?

Do you mix personalized with nonpersonalized content on your Web site? Do you make it clear which is which? Have you experimented with how broadly you segment users and found a point of diminishing returns when you segment too narrowly or too broadly? Let me know, and I will write a follow-up article with my findings.

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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