4 things you should know about personalization
Personalization is one of those topics that can make your hair hurt. Most publishers would agree that the ability to personalize content (and advertising) improves the user experience, which theoretically drives digital success metrics: deeper engagement, increased brand loyalty, and more page views, all of which, directly or indirectly, drive revenue.
Most would also agree that users are beginning to expect some level of personalization when they visit a media site, even something as basic as a Facebook Connect log-in.
“We’re still at a very early experimentation stage, but it’s clear that users will expect personalization, social integration and aggregation of the best content from around the web as part of the value proposition for any news site,” said Vijay Ravindran, SVP and chief digital officer at The Washington Post Co., which has launched a trio of personalization initiatives through its WaPo Labs R&D group.
Or any content site, for that matter. “It’s a big opportunity, and an imperative for original content publishers to build discovery mechanisms that lead people to the content they want to read,” said Ravindran. “The sooner you get started on building your version of how that personalized experience will work, the better off you’ll be.”
With the understanding that every publisher’s approach will be different, here are four things to keep in mind as you head down the path to personalization.
Personalization comes in different flavors
There are several ways to create a personalized user experience on your website. In a report published earlier this year (pdf), Forrester described four main types of personalization:
- Website segmentation: Creating segments that take customers through different navigation paths
- Behavioral targeting: Matching marketing messages to customers whose behavior implies interest in a product or service
- Recommendation engines: Showing related products (or content, in the case of publishers) based on purchase history or past site visits
- Content customization: Dynamically serving content based on past browsing behavior
Each category offers different approaches as well. WaPo Labs has three projects devoted to content customization: Trove, a Web- and app-based service that aggregates news feeds into customized channels based on a user’s Facebook profile; Social Reader, a “socially powered newswire” for Facebook, and Personal Post, a customizable version of the Washington Post website.
The type of personalization you choose will be driven by your goals, target audience and, of course, your budget. But don’t forget the digital mantra: Test and learn. Don’t make a large investment in personalization until you test several different approaches to gain some insight into what works best.
Personalization is not just about algorithms
Personalization is a data-driven exercise, no doubt about it. Personalization startup Gravity uses a proprietary ontology and natural language processing algorithms to divine interests from structured and unstructured content. These insights drive an individual’s “interest graph,” which is used as the basis for personalized content recommendations.
But editors still play a role in developing and curating content, especially for visitors who don’t want to spend a lot of time customizing their experience.
“Curation offers a valuable lens through which to view the news. Personalization offers a different lens — it's the ‘me’ lens and it's unique to each person,” said Karl Rinderknecht, Gravity’s VP of business development.
Editors also prime the personalization pump by surfacing compelling content for casual visitors who don’t provide a lot of browsing history to inform the algorithms
“When thinking about that spectrum of users, editorial judgment becomes very important for people who are lightly engaged,” said Ravindran. “Editors are helping guide content that is potentially interesting to people, and over time, personalization takes over.”
Personalization is not just for big, general-interest publishers
Gravity’s early efforts with its platform have centered on large publishers, “where the pain of surfacing personally relevant content is especially acute,” Rinderknecht said in an email. But the startup, which announced earlier this month that it raised $10.6 million in a round of Series B financing, is looking to expand its reach to smaller publishers with future releases of its platform.
For smaller publishers, personalization can help in areas such as audience acquisition and monetization, Rinkerknecht said. For example, building a personalized experience around sponsored stories can provide an additional revenue stream. “This revenue model is a perfect fit for personalization, where we've proven the ability to put the right content in front the right user. Sponsored content naturally flows from this,” he said.
Not every publisher feels the need to add personalization features to their content offerings. Some are already so narrowly focused that personalized content would not add much value. “We don’t have to personalize because we’re already so narrowly targeted,” said David Richter, chief strategy officer of Say Media, which has brands in four primary verticals: style, living, food and technology.
Personalization is, well, personal
The ultimate goal of personalization is to create a deeper emotional bond with a visitor. Presenting content that is highly relevant on some level – with a user’s interests, social network, location or some other unique characteristic at that given time – can be a significant driver of brand loyalty.
“We’re honoring people’s engaged usage by becoming a smarter site for them,” said Ravindran. “Over time, we can build a better experience that they’ll never be able to replicate anywhere else.”
In a thought-provoking post at Nieman Journalism Lab, Jonathan Stray offered three principles of personalization design from a user’s perspective:
Interest. Anyone who wants to know should be able to know. From a product point of view, this translates into good search and subscription features.
Effects. Each of us is a member of many different communities now, mostly defined by identity or interest and not geography. Each way of seeing communities gives us a different way of understanding who might be affected by something happening in the world.
Agency. Anyone who might be able to act on a story should see it. This applies regardless of whether or not that person is directly affected. Further, the right time for me to see a story is not necessarily when the story happens, but when I might be able to act.
You can see the emotional connection that applying these principles might create. Delivering highly relevant content – with relevance defined across many criteria – can create a compelling user experience that keeps people coming back for more.