The slippery slope of personalization

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The slippery slope of personalization

Occasionally our clients bring us requests to add elements of personalization to their sites.  In some cases it’s kind of a trendy request, an attempt to keep up with competitors who offer it.  In other cases, it comes with some usability arguments.  People feel it will make certain processes faster, easier, more intuitive, if the system can supply some pieces of data automatically.  Marketers hold out hope that people will respond to personalized imagery or other intimacy cues, and conversion rates will increase.

It all seems to come to a head after everyone gets back from some big marketing trade shows where they heard some amazing case studies.  We’re all for trying things to see what will happen, and we’re always keen to make users happier, so we totally get the appeal of this whole concept.

First, let’s point out that there are two distinct options when tailoring the customer experience:

  • Customization
  • Personalization


Customization gives control to the user

Customization gives control to the user and lets them tweak a few things in the UI to let them put their personal touch on it.  Examples are sites that let you rearrange the widgets or remove the ones you don’t need, or sites that let you upload your picture and change the background color.  One of our clients built that into their intranet — employees could move a few things around and choose between five background colors.   Any time you can have a Favorites area, you are being allowed to Customize.

The biggest risk here is that people will goof things up to the point where they have to call the help desk to restore some essential widgets that they accidentally chucked.  Or that they will choose the hot pink theme option that the design team put into the palette for a joke.  Other than that, most customization offerings are pretty harmless and honestly there is only a small percentage of people who will ever actually use them to make any tweaks.  That is because they come with a high interaction cost — you have to do some work to customize things for yourself.

Most people find it more convenient to keep the default settings of any device they own, even when they know it could save them a step or two if they customized things.


Personalization gives control to the site

Personalization gives control to the site and the site owners determine who has the right to do and see specific things on the site.  This can be role-based, or individual-based.  A good example is a corporate intranet, where only managers are shown the links to the manager tools, and only people who are enrolled in the retirement plan are offered the option to review the plan.  Unlike customization, there is no interaction cost for the user.  The burden is all on the site and systems.

Personalization in that use case makes a lot of sense.  When it is crystal clear that you either belong in a group or you don’t, then there’s no chance that you will accidentally be blocked from something you should be entitled to see (or vice versa).

Personalization on a general website is a little fuzzier.  Since your visitors are not all employees, and thus don’t all have known roles with clear entitlements, you have to make a lot of assumptions based on any data you can glean from your analytics tools.  And that can lead to some very squirrely outcomes.

Case in Point

We worked with a client who wanted to start displaying personalized banners on their website.  The idea was:

  • Firmagraphic data from Demandbase would indicate the visitor’s location, industry, and company size
  • Based on that, the site would respond by showing
    • Product ads related to the visitor’s industry (for example, if they were from a hospital, the banner image would show the product being used in a doctor’s office or hospital)
    • Event promotions for live events in their locale
    • Success stories of companies of similar size, industry, and country or geographical region

The project was technically complex, due to the way the site was built, so the full vision was never really achieved.  But we got far enough with them to learn a few things:

  1. It didn’t seem to matter a whole lot to people if the banner image matched their industry.  We just didn’t see an increase in click-through rate (CTR) when we showed visitors from the healthcare sector banners showing doctors.
  2. People continued to register for events almost exclusively in response to email invitations, despite having personalized event banners displayed on the site.  (It is possible they were “warmed up” by the banner and converted on the email, but the stats on email conversions didn’t really change. )
  3. They didn’t have enough success stories from the different industries to really test that piece of the project.

The key takeaway from this exploration was: not enough ROI to warrant the effort.

Pros and Cons

Here are the primary pros and cons of Personalization:

  • Pro: Can improve the user experience without any effort on the user’s part
  • Pro: Can simplify a complicated set of choices by paring it down to the ones that seem to apply best
  • Pro: Can deliver or emphasize information based on previous interest
  • Pro: Can deliver specialized messaging to target personae that resonates better and is more actionable
  • Con: Mistakes are more glaring if you do it wrong.
    • The director of field marketing at a business we work for keeps getting emails referring to her in a former job role. It’s obvious to her that they haven’t paid much attention to her.
    • Might show a renewal message to an enduser who has no power in the purchasing process
    • Why are you showing me Viagra ads???
  • Con: It takes a lot more sustained effort from the business. If you lose funding or resources are moved, the effort grinds to a halt.
  • Con: If you show the wrong content on an intranet, you can be in legal trouble.
  • Con: As we learned in our pilot, some personalizations are not effective, despite being costly to do.
    • You should do testing with the target audience to see if they will respond to a personalized banner before committing to a wider set of personalized content for them
  • Con: If it is too personal, it can feel creepy.
    • Tired of working for Microsoft? Come work for us!

 Bottom Line

There are some excellent applications for personalization, but take the time to think through the potential downsides, and weigh them carefully against the costs of implementation and the risks to the customer trust.

By | 2018-02-03T18:05:41+00:00 February 2nd, 2018|Categories: User Experience|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

About the Author:

Susan is one of the original founders of WebWise Solutions, and is now the sole proprietor of the company. She and a partner created the company in 2001 to build and manage the end-user communities of several enterprise software companies, including Novell, Symantec, SUSE, Micro Focus, Dell, Omniture, Adobe, and many others. Susan went on to develop additional lines of business doing UX research and CRO consulting, web writing and editing, and content marketing strategy for many of their clients. She built, developed and managed a global team that delivered UX/CRO services to a number of sales and marketing teams at Micro Focus and SUSE.