Less Is More

I delivered a talk about tailoring web sites to use profile data recently. A question from the audience was: “Do personalized pages take longer to download than static pages?”

A good question because some people think the extra processing time of personalization will slow the creation and delivery of pages.

The answer turns out to be a case of both “less is more” and “more is less.”

A site that takes full advantage of personalization reacts to each person very quickly with instantaneous access to the profile database and content databases. As the server selects which content to include, it’s also determining which content not to include.

Since less material is served to the browser, the download time required is less than it would be if all the possible content pieces were displayed on the page. In other words, since less is served, it’s delivered more quickly.

However, to make this work, another principle – “more is less” – comes into play. It takes content creators more time to develop more content for the server to choose from in order to achieve the benefits of personalization.

One of the advantages of using a database-driven web site is that it’s relatively easy to allow writers and editors to enter material into a database through web forms instead of developing traditional web pages. This not only saves time, it also eliminates potential coding errors that occur when designing in HTML.

There are a number of personalization systems on the market using this technique that allow content developers to incorporate personalization commands directly into their material as it’s stored in the database.

This turns the task of creating more content into a more efficient process – and reduces the time for visitors to find material of interest and take an action. In other words, “more is less.” Investing in the creation of more content helps visitors spend less time trying to find what they want.

Unfortunately, helping web visitors spend less time on a site seeing fewer pages runs counter to the objectives of many content sites. This is because more pages viewed means more ad banners and more revenue.

For e-commerce sites, however, the goal of helping customers make a purchase decision more quickly can result in higher revenue with the purchase of more products.

This means that the decision of where to use personalization on a site needs to be a balance of the visitor’s desire for more relevant content with the business’s need to increase revenue.

For organizations using their web site to encourage people to make a purchase or take some other action, using personalization to achieve a “less is more” approach usually makes sense.

A good example of using profile data to minimize the size of pages can be found on the admissions sub-site at Providence College.

Colleges and universities have recently started using the same direct marketing techniques that private industry has used for years to target key groups of potential applicants.

Providence’s use of one-to-one web marketing takes this marketing approach to the next level by using profile information to select just the right content for each visitor, whether they are a potential applicant, high school counselor, alumnus, or have some other interest in the school.

When visitors to the Providence site answer a question and start their personal profile, the site discontinues showing the welcome message.

When a student selects the high school attended, the site displays a schedule of events just for that area.

The site also selects links to articles for each person, based on interests, number of site visits, and other profile data.

All this occurs without requiring students to provide any personal information that identifies them (i.e., Anonymous Personalization: Part II,.

If students later subscribe to the newsletter, they receive a welcoming email on behalf of the counselor responsible for their high school. This is followed by personalized email newsletters containing notices of events in the area and reminders of due dates based on their own point in the application process.

The Providence site demonstrates that each bit of profile data can be used to display just what the visitor is looking for. And, it does this by constantly inviting visitors to add bits of information to their profiles, then responding with just the right information for that person.

Maximizing the use of profile data can minimize the amount of material delivered to each person, which helps them absorb information and take action in less time, showing once again that more really can be less.

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