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It's Time Content Got Personal

Like many professionals I might go for a drink with colleagues after a hectic day in the office. Our establishment of choice is by no means the classiest but we go there because they know our names, they know what my colleagues and I will order the moment we walk through the door and they talk to us all as individuals not as customers.

Everyone likes it when they go to their favourite coffee house and the barista remembers their favourite drink. Or when you walk into a store and are greeted with a friendly smile. The personal touch goes a long way towards building brand loyalty in the real world and this is no different online. But brands putting your name at the top of an email or welcoming you back to a website just isn’t enough in this new age of consumer-centric marketing.

The digital age ushered in an era of continually increasing consumer power. Customer expectations have evolved side by side with advancements in technology. Search has empowered us to find and compare products with ease. Social networks are flooded with brand related content containing recommendations, reviews and experiences. And mobile technology allows people to access every facet of their daily lives from mobile banking to restaurant bookings, with just a few taps.

...and they are not going to jump through hoops to get what they want. Brand communications not only need to be always on but always relevant. They need to aid the consumer and understand their wants and needs in order to deliver accurate marketing that cuts through the noise.

At a time when more and more brands are realising that the customer is king, it is hardly surprising that personalisation is becoming such a big focus for many marketers. But while many marketers will acknowledge the importance of personalising their customer journey, only a small percentage of brands are really implementing this.

In the early years the Web was a 'static' experience where every user was presented with the same content and users would select which content to view based on navigation and search results. This resulted in an online experience with a predominantly low engagement 'pull' relationship between a user and content. Personalisation distorts this relationship between content and consumer by creating an environment where brands can guide the user in their voyage of discovery by delivering content in a manner that is specific to their 'journey' or interest. Sales history, social media, customer service interactions and web searches are all essential components to building an insightful customer profile.

Building this profile of an individual’s preferences and habits allows brands to target individuals with specific products or promotions. It can also be used to deliver more engaging or streamlined user journeys by adapting page layouts and making suggestions of other content that may be of interest. But for a personalisation programme to be really effective it is key that data collected is democratised and accessible by all departments within a brand and that the overall approach is consistent. Multi-channel isn’t enough. Effective personalisation works seamlessly cross-channel.


An example published by looks at The Huffington Post. The initial experiments on specific verticals of the Huffington Post site have led to between a 70 and 200 % increase in click-through rates on suggested articles at the end or side of published content.

“Publishers are used to creating a homepage that directs readers to different stories and parts of the site but as more readers arrive at websites ‘through the side door’ of social media, it becomes more important to create a personalised experience for each reader.” – Jimmy Maymann, Chief Executive of The Huffington Post.

“So you arrive via a different side door than I do... You would see something different, the stories that are presented to you are different to the stories that are presented to me and hopefully what that gives us is a more engaged audience."

RBS take this approach to the next level by maintaining a personalised user journey across multiple channels. RBS data shows that customers searching for a loan will visit the site on average 4-5 times before choosing a product. Furthermore they report that while the majority of initial enquiries are via desktop a rather sizeable 35% of actual applications are via mobile. This highlights the need for effective cross-channel personalisation using a single profile.

Only current customers can apply for loans so users are required to login. This allows RBS to build up an explicitly personal profile of their customers and retarget/adapt the user journey across multiple touch points based on past visits and interactions. Giles Richardson, Data and Analytics says “RBS have seen a 70% – 80% increase in conversion rate since implementing our personalisation program”.

But as brands start to consider implementing personalisation programmes they need to be certain that it isn’t overcomplicating their marketing strategy and that they don’t deter the consumer. The method of personalisation used and how that data is used to optimise the content surfaced to the customer, varies greatly from brand to brand. Indeed, for many websites that have limited amounts of content to personalise, it would be hard to justify trying to fragment it into profiles or tracked experiences and change how content is displayed. And is it really adding value for the customer?

Talking to Marketing Week, Nick Dutch, Head of Digital at takeaway chain Domino’s, says that the level of intimacy brands can have with consumers depends on the role they play in their lives. “Nike’s wearable tech Fuelband, which tracks physical activity, became a trusted tool to help people manage their fitness,” he says, “but our customers are not willing to give away their life story in order to get a better price on a pizza.”

The brand has focused on more effective use of segmentation rather than personalised marketing on a one-to-one basis. He says that “95% 
of what we do is about targeting communications and 5% personalisation”, though he adds that Domino’s will send an individually addressed email to a customer who has received a late delivery.


Could personalisation actually create an online world that is too focused in the content it delivers? We could find ourselves in a world where people experience “content envy”, where they feel their peers are getting better content simply because they have a more detailed online profile. While a rather extreme concept, this does highlight a potential problem with personalisation.

Extreme use of algorithms and models can create a “filter bubble” that hinders people from encountering a diversity of viewpoints beyond their own, or which only presents facts that confirm their existing views. In the case of product recommendations a poorly implemented personalisation system can result in customers being targeted with suggestions of products that they have already purchased. Not only does this reduce the brand's effectiveness to up-sell to their customers, it can actually be detrimental to the way users perceive the brand.

Certainly there is a risk that brands may inadvertently supress the serendipitous discovery of content that they so eagerly want people to engage with. To tackle this, Chinese start-up Taguage is aiming to revolutionise the way search engines work by introducing greater personalisation and even more interestingly, an element of chance. Finding this balance will be essential to brands looking to become publishers as the effectiveness of one-to-one marketing grows and more and more content publishers implement their own personalisation systems.

Written by Noel Drew, Creative Technologist, Adjust Your Set