Natasha Singer’s NYT article got me thinking again about the secret of personalization that nearly everyone forgets: the whole point is to act smarter, not dumber.
Companies screw up when they apply a mass production mentality to personalization, which is how I would describe the Urban Outfitters idea that men only want to see men’s clothing.
Personalization isn’t about one idea. It’s about creating interactions that feel smarter to the person on the other side, your customer.
To generalize a bit, there are two approaches to online personalization: implicit or explicit. The former makes assumptions based on what you do (i.e. check the sports scores every day); the latter accepts your specific input (i.e. “I liked this article on quantum physics”). In most cases, explicit works better but participation rates plummet when sites require explicit personalization. (It takes more work.) Pinterest largely solved this problem by creating a really fun way to gather a user’s explicit input; in fact, most people don’t realize they are giving Pinterest explicit personalization input when they “pin” something.
But the biggest challenge in personalization is creating a corporate culture around the notion of personalization. Most business models lean heavily towards selling rather than serving, and towards pushing products rather than pushing boundaries. There are very few companies that have figured this out. Zappos and Amazon have come close.
Ultimately personalization is about acting smart. Smart people/companies have something of value to say, and know the difference between what’s of value to you and what’s of value to me. Michael Hinshaw and I wrote a book, Smart Customers, Stupid Companies, as a warning to executives that acting dumber than your customers is not a sustainable business strategy, and that wireless devices make it inevitable that customers will increasingly expect meaningful personalization.
Bruce Kasanoff is president of Now Possible, a marketing and innovation consultancy; and co-author of Smart Customers, Stupid Companies: Why Only Intelligent Companies Will Thrive and How to Be One of Them