Welcome Back, Mr. Lesbian!: Pitfalls of Perceived Personalization

  |  April 4, 2002   |  Comments

Jack learned -- the hard way -- customers may think you're personalizing content when you're not.

Welcome Back, Mr. Lesbian!

In 1999, I created the personalization practice at barnesandnoble.com. About two weeks into the job, I got an email directly from the CEO... and I was being yelled at.

A customer had bought a book for his sister. The book was about lesbianism, and he bought it as a gift. At the time, the B&N.com home page had a drop-down box containing 50 different subjects, including history, fiction, adventure, sports, and gay & lesbian. When this guy returned to the site a week later, "Gay & Lesbian" was pre-selected in the box. From a company perspective, this level of personalization might seem reasonable: The user buys a book on lesbianism; ergo, the user has an interest in subject; ergo, highlight that section on the home page when user returns.

You're likely thinking, "Yeah, but he bought the book as a gift. We already know how poor personalization is at figuring out what you bought for yourself and what you bought as a gift." I agree with you, but that wasn't the problem. What was the problem, then?

There was no personalization on the home page!

Huh? Then what happened? Well, when the code was written for the home page, someone thought it would be clever to put a random generator behind the list box. Whenever the home page loaded, the list box displayed a different subject as the "default" selection. One person would see "Fiction" highlighted, another would see "History," and so on. On this day, on this page, on this particular refresh, the highlighted subject was "Gay & Lesbian." The odds were about 1 in 50 any particular subject would be highlighted. That day, the odds were not in B&N.com's favor. This man saw the category the site "suggested" and became irate. So irate he emailed customer service several times. How dare B&N.com make assumptions about his life based on one data point, especially when the data point wasn't even relevant to him! The emails went through customer service, up to the CEO, and down to me, with a "What the hell are you doing to our home page?!" tone. It was my second week on the job.

The home page had no personalization. But, it had a sense of perceived personalization. There was dynamic content that looked different to different users and could conceivably have been personalized.

The two principles of perceived personalization are as follows:

  1. People think you're personalizing their experiences, especially if your site has dynamic content.

  2. If you collect information that could be used for personalization but don't actually personalize anything, your users will think you're doing a bad job and get frustrated.

Let's deconstruct these two rules. Rule 1 should be fairly obvious, given the above example. The lesson is many users don't distinguish between dynamic content and personalized content. Content changes all the time, so why shouldn't it change intelligently? If you have dynamic content that isn't personalized, make it clear you aren't selecting content only for that user. That way, the user won't get upset because she thinks you are simply "wrong."

Rule 2 is as much about privacy as personalization. Basically, you should not collect user information unless there's a clearly defined use for it. In a previous article, when I asked you to submit "my" sites you liked and disliked it was so I could write a "best and worst 'my' sites" article.

So We Can Better Assist You, Please Tell Us Your Social Security Number

I was doing research for that column and came across Topica (which one of you wrote me about). The site allows you to sign up for about a billion and one email newsletters. Great. I need more newsletters in my inbox every day. In its "sign up now" section, it asks for the basic information I expected (e.g., name and email address), then it asks for gender, birthday, and Zip Code. What?! Is Topica going to send me horoscopes? A Hallmark card on my birthday? If I don't get a birthday card from Topica on my birthday (May 8, for those of you on expense accounts), I will be very upset. I wonder what it'll do with the fact that I'm male. Perhaps the newsletters will be in shades of blue instead of pink. What about my Zip Code? Maybe it plans to send me weather reports. How thoughtful and considerate. Not.

In the eyes of the user, it asked for that information to enrich my customer experience, right? Nope. If you read the privacy policy, it uses "demographic" information for its market research. Topica can sell the information and prove its worth to sponsors. Oh, and these fields are required. What gets me even more upset is it is "TrustE" certified, which (in my opinion) means nothing.

Another reason a company might collect information is it "plans" to personalize user experience, but those projects haven't yet launched. So, someone decided to go ahead with the registration first, collect the necessary information, then launch personalization sometime later. Bad idea. Wait until you have the entire system in place before you collect explicit information. Your users don't know your launch schedule. They just know you have set expectations you're not meeting.

In Conclusion

Avoid both sides of perceived personalization. If you aren't personalizing your content, make sure your users know it, especially if you have dynamic content. On the other side of the spectrum, make sure you only collect information if you're ready to use it. If you collect information for marketing purposes only, make sure the user knows that when you request the information. And make that information optional.

Do you have funny (or tragic) stories about perceived personalization? Let me know!

Until next time...

Jack

ClickZ Live San Francisco Revolutionize your digital marketing campaigns at ClickZ Live San Francisco! (August 10-12) Educating marketers for over 15 years, we return to San Francisco this August with our action-packed, educationally-focused agenda that will cover every aspect of digital marketing. Early Bird rates available through Friday, July 17 - save up to $300! Register today.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 Shop.org and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

COMMENTSCommenting policy

comments powered by Disqus

Get the ClickZ Analytics newsletter delivered to you. Subscribe today!

COMMENTS

UPCOMING EVENTS

Featured White Papers

US Consumer Device Preference Report

US Consumer Device Preference Report
Traditionally desktops have shown to convert better than mobile devices however, 2015 might be a tipping point for mobile conversions! Download this report to find why mobile users are more important then ever.

E-Commerce Customer Lifecycle

E-Commerce Customer Lifecycle
Have you ever wondered what factors influence online spending or why shoppers abandon their cart? This data-rich infogram offers actionable insight into creating a more seamless online shopping experience across the multiple devices consumers are using.

WEBINARS

Jobs

  • Sr. Marketing Specialist, PPC
    Sr. Marketing Specialist, PPC (Charter Communications) - StamfordSr. Marketing Specialist, PPC– Digital Marketing Charter Communications...
  • Online Marketing Analyst
    Online Marketing Analyst (FULLBEAUTY Brands ) - New YorkINTRODUCTION: Are you interested in a unique career opportunity where you can represent...
  • Copy Editor
    Copy Editor (ClickZ / Search Engine Watch) - New YorkROLE OVERVIEW The role of the copy editor for ClickZ has many demands. Ultimately, the copy...