Thinking about context

This is the third in a series of posts about why personalisation needs context.

In my last post I wrote about Joe Pine’s idea that we can create new value by customising goods, products, services and experiences. And I wrote about how I believe we’re starting to do the next logical thing: we are customising experiences to create personalised ‘Moments’.

In this post I want to look at how companies differentiate themselves – and why so many organisations get it so wrong when it comes to customising services and experiences. And what this means for this idea of Moments.

Let me start with an example. I was recently travelling into work when I received a text from my mobile phone company telling me about a new loyalty offer from one of their ‘trusted partners’. It was a coupon to use that day at a local coffee shop. The problem was that the coupon had been sent to me based on where I was at the time. Which was on a train travelling about 50mph through that particular area.

It was a waste of a text. A waste of my time and attention. And a waste of money for the trusted partner (who I’m sure had been sold a ‘targeted loyalty solution’ as part of a ‘customer engagement service’ from the mobile operator). Even if they could have predicted that I wanted a coffee at that moment – ignoring the fact that I’d bought one before getting on the train – they’d failed to understand the meaning of my location. They were guessing.

(As an aside, I’ve just looked through the other ‘loyalty’ offers texted to me by my mobile operator. Some insight here if you bother to look: A cider offer (I expect based on my demographic profile), very expensive headphones (again, my demographic?), an invitation to visit a newly-decorated department store (based on location), a beer offer (I don’t drink beer), a discount sofa range (who knows), lottery tickets (don’t play), a lunch offer (the closest match – sent at lunch time), and a deal for an ice lolly. All waste. All diluting the market message. And all reminding me of Don Marti’s brilliant writing about ads and signalling here.)

So I started thinking about this more generally – why and how so many organisations make these assumptions, and waste time, effort, money and the relationship with the customer. Why guesswork is considered the smartest way to engage with customers.

Looking back at Joe Pine’s ideas about Mass Customisation, he describes how companies are able to differentiate: with products, it’s mainly about price. With services, he believes it’s about improving quality. And with experiences, it’s all about being authentic – or rather, two specific types of authenticity:

  1. Being true to others – doing what you say you will
  2. Being true to yourself – being consistent about who you are

By mapping these two types onto a ‘two-by-two’ matrix, he shows that there are four possible types of experience. Here’s a picture of what he means (some are my own examples):

Moment economy pic 2_B&W

Top right: It’s an authentically ‘real’ experience. They are themselves and do what they say they will. Like going to a traditional Italian family restaurant – they take a very real pride in serving you and discussing suitable wines, insisting that you sample their home-made tiramisu, and giving you an espresso on the house, because it’s what they are passionate about.

Top left: It’s kind of authentic, but there’s something missing. They do what they promise but they really aren’t truly being themselves. Like being served by the clichéd Fast Food Burger Guy – yes, he sells you a burger, but he doesn’t love his job. His “have a nice day” as you leave feels empty.

Bottom right: It’s an authentic experience, but it’s a ‘real fake’. Like going to DisneyLand – in every way it’s about family entertainment, but you’re not really in the Magic Kingdom.

Bottom left: It’s a completely fake experience. Like being the victim of a phishing attack – the people contacting you are not who they say they are, and don’t do what they promise.

I like Pine’s thinking about these two types of authenticity. So it got me thinking about how I could look at customised experiences – my idea of ‘Moments’ – in the same way.

How can companies differentiate themselves when it comes to personalisation?

I believe there are two things organisations will need to understand:

  1. Who I am. But not just my identity generally – it has to be ‘who I am right now’. They’ll need to understand my persona – who I want to be seen as – because this changes over time. At some times of day I’m a parent, at other times I’m a football supporter, sales executive, friend and so on.
  2. What matters to me. Again, this doesn’t just mean ‘my preferences’, but what I want or need right now. Am I looking for advice? Am I sharing with friends? Am I shopping or just browsing?

So like Pine’s view of experiences, I’ve had a go at mapping out personalised Moments in the same way. Here’s my view of the four outcomes:

 2x2 Authentic pic_2_B&W

Top left: When the organisation asks me who I am, but then guesses what matters right now: it’s Facebook (and other ‘social commerce’).

  • Them: “Please sign in and let us know exactly who you are.”
  • Me: “Hi, it’s me again.”
  • Them: “Hey! We’ve been following your activities online (and in some places offline too), and what your friends have been saying recently, and we thought you might be interested in this Expensive Car. And an ‘Ice Watch’. And a ‘Dream holiday in Malaysia”.* 

*these are not random examples – I just logged into Facebook to see what ads were being shown to me…

 Top right: When the organisation asks me who I am, but asks me about what matters right now: it’s

  • Them: “Hi, how can I help you?”
  • Me: “I’m looking for a new mobile deal.
  • Them: “Ah, what kind of deal are you looking for? We can help you look through all the options on the market right now, but if you let us know how you use your phone we can find you the best fit.”
  • Me: “Well here’s how I’ve used my phone for the last few months….”

Bottom right: When they don’t know who I really am, but go some way to asking what I want: it’s uSwitch (and other price comparison websites).

  • Them: “Hi, what are you looking for today.”
  • Me: “Here’s some basic information about what I need.”
  • Them: “Great! Here’s a list of things you might be interested in, but because we don’t really know who you are (and can’t verify any of the stuff you just told us) you’ll have to speak to the providers directly.”

Bottom left: When they don’t know who I am and completely guess what I want: it’s spam.

  • Them: “Would you like to buy this car?”
  • Me: “How did you get this address? Please delete me from your database.”
  • Them (8 minutes later): “Would you like to buy this car? Or this one? Or this one?”

Back to my texted-coupon-on-a-train example. I wrote earlier that they had failed to understand the meaning of my location – or rather, the context of my location. I believe that personalisation goes wrong when no one’s asking about the customer’s context, or no one’s listening. It’s being sent a ‘targeted’ advert for a car, not knowing you just joined a car club. It’s being recommended a book on Amazon based on your shopping history, not knowing you actually hate the author (your previous purchase was for a friend). It’s being sent coupons for pregnancy products based on your shopping history, when you haven’t yet told your family you are expecting a baby.

The opportunity here is to help organisations understand their customers better. Who they are and what matters to them – at that moment. The problem is that this is very hard to do at Internet Scale. Which is why most organisations rely on standardising processes, service models and customer experiences. It’s the easiest answer when all your customers look the same, and you’ve had a 150 years of practice. (though it’s unfortunate that standardisation like this can unintentionally kill innovation.)

I continue to be excited by everything going on around Personal Clouds, Trust Frameworks and Vendor Relationship Management. Because I believe that these ideas and others will help organisations build relationships with individuals, not just drive transactions. And in doing so they’ll be able to listen to, and understand, customer context.

It’s worth noting one point of caution here, made by Doc Searls after I put up my last blog post. Almost all personalisation as we know it today is ‘vendor-side’ and not ‘customer-side’. Put simply, it’s usually done TO us – or at best WITH us – rather than done BY us, the customer. You know, the people paying for stuff. My simple view is that personalisation is all about understanding Moments; this means listening to – and likely for – customer signals.

I believe we’re about to enter a very interesting few years where customers will start to have tools to express who they are, and what they want – when it matters. And organisations will be able to listen, and address those customers directly. I think it was Doc who a while back reminded us that we overestimate what will happen in two years, but underestimate what will happen in ten…

It’s an exciting time indeed.


One comment

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