Thinking about personalisation

[So I’ve been meaning to write a new post for a while now. In fact for about a year. The last 12 months have been great thinking time and great family time. But it’s now time to get back online properly and put some new posts up. For people to read, for people to think about; hopefully for people to discuss and respond. Make of it what you will – I’m all ears. And eyeballs. And keen to hear and see what you think. Most of all I want to start a discussion.  Spark some conversations. Perhaps some relationships. And you never know, maybe even some transactions. (For those that don’t get the reference – go and read #Cluetrain. Welcome everybody, I’m back.]

Today’s thoughts are brought to you by the letter P and the number 1. P stands for Personalisation and ’1′ stands for the fact that there is only one you. Whilst there may be many versions of who we want to show at any one time, there’s only one real you (for a bit of background on some of that, see my previous posts).

You see, it all starts with internet advert click-through-rates. The last time I looked – and I must confess that I haven’t checked for a while (but very much doubt if things are today much different) – on average, internet banner adverts in the US get a click through rate of around 0.1% (that’s one in 1000, to be clear)

(Not for nothing, but one of my favourite facts from this same study suggests that Facebook achieves half of this (one in 2000), whilst Google get four times this (one in 250), almost 10 times that of Facebook. Curious indeed.)

Anyway, my point is this: the online advertising machine – the same one that over-valued Facebook at their IPO and according to Doc Searls is in a bubble – needs ever more data every day to stay relevant. It needs to gather up increasing amounts of juicy data about things like our habits, preferences, transactions, shopping trips and travel plans. In an effort to improve a terribly low rate of 0.1%, it’s understandable that marketing teams all over the world are asking for more data. Data about you, about people like you, and about people like people like you. And their friends.

The thing is as they gather more data, it all ends up on a spectrum of ‘use-value’ (as opposed to ‘sale value’ – see this great post for more). At one end of the spectrum the use-value is zero. The data is wildly wrong; it clogs up the customer relationship management (CRM) tools of our businesses, and fuels badly targeted ads and other ‘personalised’ services which in turn clog up our daily lives and devices.

At the other end of the spectrum the use-value is huge. The data can be used to deliver helpful, timely and relevant services to the right person at the right time. But the problem here is two-fold: First, the service is often ‘targeted’ at a ‘consumer’ that is ‘owned’ by an organisation. The purpose is purely commercial, and is really just about finding qualified leads for another sale. The individual is rarely actually involved. Second, it’s only when the data gets really accurate that we begin to ask questions about who has our data and why. We start to ask questions about trust.

When an organisation has worked out where you are, what you’re doing, possibly who you’re with, what you might need and when, we begin to wonder what else they know, what other data they have and what else might it be used for. It’s taken the public debate around PRISM both in the USA and Europe for us to reflect on what data we’re comfortable sharing with others (perhaps in the name of security) and what data we’d rather keep to ourselves.

And so personalisation is a tricky business. It’s about finding the balance of use-value for the individual and use-value for the organisation. When we get it right, everyone wins. But when we don’t, our businesses waste time and money and our lives get noisy; worse, we can sometimes lose trust – not only in the people or organisatoins involved, but in the whole system.

This is the first post about personalisation. It’d be good to get your thoughts – which companies get it right and why? What do they do that’s different?

I’ll bet that some have found a better way to spend money than on a 1-in-a-1000 advertising lucky dip. And they don’t irritate us in the process.


  1. Pingback: Thinking about moments | Jamie Smith
  2. Pingback: Thinking about context | Jamie Smith

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