What does online personalisation really mean?

Paul Boag

Personalisation can cause a lot of confusion. It comes in many forms and not all of them are appropriate for every site. Do not insist on personalisation unless you have a clear idea of what you mean and what benefits you expect.

I was working with an internal web team on a site rebuild, when we got a visit from a member of senior management. Until that point everything was going smoothly. We had an agreed plan, it was progressing well and everybody was enthusiastic. However, within minutes of meeting with the person from senior management our plans fell into disarray.

“We need to make sure we address personalisation on the new site” he told us. This was entirely out of scope as their were far more fundamental issues to address like clear navigation and relevant content. Personalisation might have been relevant if the site was more advanced, but as it stood it was too early to look into this area.

Despite well over an hour of discussion, he was unwilling to see reason. He couldn’t give a clear definition of what he considered personalising the site meant or what business benefit it provided. He was just insistent that it was addressed. He had heard how important it was and wanted to see it included.

Amazon recommendations
People request personalisation after seeing Amazon. They don’t understand that systems like Amazon are hugely expensive and don’t always work on other sites.

In order to clarify the situation I ended up writing a short report outlining different ‘personalisation’ options with a brief cost/benefit analysis of each.

In the report I identified six types of personalisation. I used the broadest possible definition of personalisation in the hopes that I could demonstrate to management that we were addressing his concerns without having to implement the kind of personalisation you see on a site like Amazon (something completely outside of their budget or legitimate requirements).

The first type of personalisation I addressed was email and social media.

Email and social media personalisation

There are various scenarios where a user identifies themselves to an organisation. This is typically where they signup for some form of notification (e.g. a newsletter) or follow the organisation via a social media channel.

When a user identifies themselves in this kind of way they often provide valuable information about themselves and their needs. This allows targeted communication with them using segmentation. For example this might occur through targeted email campaigns or Facebook advertising.

Because we know about the user the content we send to them can be personalised to their individual needs.

Facebook Advertising
When users follow you on a social network this allows you to targeted them based on their interests and demographics.

Cost / Benefit Analysis

  • This approach to personalisation requires very little technical investment.
  • The degree of the personalisation is only constrained by the quality of the data you collect on the user.
  • This approach requires continual management and content creation.
  • Ideally this approach should be integrated with a broader customer relationship management system.

Campaign personalisation

Campaign personalisation is a term used to describe website content personalised to support online and offline campaigns.

This typically involves the creation of a custom landing page to support the campaign. For example a direct mail campaign being sent to university alumni who graduated in 1998 might include a web address to a supporting page e.g. http://uni.ac.uk/alumni98/. These pages typically include a call to action such as making a donation or signing up for an event.

Reddit users Obama campaign page
The Obama campaign used targeted landing pages to reach out to specific groups such as Reddit users.

Cost / Benefit Analysis

  • No additional technical development is required to support campaign pages beyond that provided by a normal content management system.
  • These ‘landing pages’ can be tightly integrated with both offline and online campaigns.
  • Campaign landing pages can be used to encourage users to complete calls to action not available in the campaign itself (e.g. signup for an email newsletter).
  • Personalisation is limited to the scope of the campaign itself.

Geographical personalisation

Geographical personalisation customises content based on the geographical region that a user is in. For example, you may choose to redirect users from India to a page specifically designed for an indian audience.

Geographical personalisation can also be used to offer translations of content or customise the content that appears on existing pages.

Apple page aimed at people living in the United Arab Emirates
Websites regularly targeted users by geographical region.

Cost / Benefit Analysis

  • Although it is relatively easy to identify the geographical region a user is from, there is no guarantee it is correct. For example, corporate users can often be identified as being from the country their company is headquartered in.
  • If a user is mis-identified as being from a particular geographical region, it can be hard or impossible for them to get back to the correct content.
  • Translating and customising content can be time consuming and expensive.
  • Geographical personalisation is a powerful way of attracting international audiences and showing the organisation’s commitment to them.

IP customisation

IP customisation attempts to identify the user through their IP address. Although most users access the web via an ISP, corporate and institutional users can be identified from their IP address. In other words it is possible to know if a user is likely to come from a particular company or even a competitor.

Knowing where a user comes from allows the customisation of content to reflect their needs. Typically this might involve changing homepage content to provide quick links to content of specific interest to that type of user.

Cost / Benefit Analysis

  • Identifying a user by IP address is unreliable. Many IP addresses are not reflective of the company for which the user works.
  • If a user works away from the office (such as at home) there is no way to identify them as an employee.
  • IP lookup can cause performance issues, slowing the site for all users.
  • IP lookup relies on the use of third party lookup services. These services charge a fee and are not always reliable.
  • A list of companies the organisation wishes to target will need to be created and content produced for each company.
  • Customised content for corporate users or those from other organisation will enable users to find the information they are after much quicker. This is particularly true for secondary audiences whose content doesn’t normally have high priority on the site.

Account customisation

The most common form of personalisation is when a user can personalise content once they have created an account. By logging in the user identifies themselves and so content can then be tailored around their needs. This typically involves adding or removing content modules and customising quick links to content they regularly access.

It is possible to do account customisation without a user logging in by relying on cookies. However, as cookies are often removed, customisation options will be lost if there is no account.

Customisation on the NHS Leeds sites
Unless your site is regularly used by visitors, customisation makes little sense.

Cost / Benefit Analysis

  • Account customisation is a substantial piece of technical work.
  • Account customisation is extremely useful for users who regularly return to the site, but less so for external audiences who will only visit the site occasionally.
  • Users are often reluctant to create and configure an account for anything other than their most frequently navigated sites (e.g. BBC news).
  • Other than providing shortcuts to key content (something that could be achieved just as easily by bookmarking a page) there is often little benefit to end users of having an account.
  • Ideally this approach should be integrated with a broader customer relationship management system.

Related content personalisation

Related content personalisation is something most of us are aware of from using Amazon. It refers to recommendations based on what content you have previously viewed and the behaviour of other users.

Amazon has spent millions on the creation of their content matching algorithm and the return on investment could only be seen on an ecommerce site of their size. However, not all related content personalisation needs to be as sophisticated as Amazon. For example it would be possible to use Google Analytics data to match related posts on a blog. In other words, we could see what other pages people look at after viewing a specific post and then provide quick links to those at the bottom of the post they are reading.

Amazon recommendations
People request personalisation after seeing Amazon. They don’t understand that systems like Amazon are hugely expensive and don’t always work on other sites.

Cost / Benefit Analysis

  • Amazon levels of automated related content personalisation is often prohibitively expensive.
  • Related content personalisation can be useful for the user and helps reduce bounce rate.
  • Manually matching pages using Google Analytics Data is possible, but time consuming.
  • There are third party tools that do this job, but the costs and implementation times are substantial.

This is far from a comprehensive analysis of the personalisation options, but hopefully it will help useful for explaining the basic options to stakeholders who show interest in the subject.

The key takeaway is that personalisation is a complex area and not something that can just be easily plugged into a website. It can prove expensive and so there needs to be a clear road to generating a return from that investment.

“Customization” image courtesy of Bigstock.com