All Content Is Personal: The Importance of Knowing Your Audience

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Article ImageWe have all been there before: an ill-timed ad immediately turns us off a brand, or a website puts us on edge by revealing too much of what the site knows about us. And yet, advertisers and publishers alike keep hearing how important it is to deliver personalized content to their audiences at exactly the right time and are left wondering how to strike the right note with their efforts.

"I think there is always the matter of striking a balance between what is considerate and what is crazy," says Margot Bloomstein, principal strategist for Appropriate, Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy based in Boston. "I find that, in general, when people offer their information and are aware that they are offering it, then when content is personalized for their needs it doesn't feel as odd."

According to the 2013 "Online Personal Experience" study by Janrain, more than half (57%) of people are just fine with providing personal information to a website and as long as they benefit and the information is used responsibly. Janrain also found that 77% would be more trusting of companies collecting private data if the businesses were transparent about how the information would be used. But that's where the trouble lies. Many content providers are still struggling to use the information they collect in a way that truly improves the customer experience.


Users of social media sites volunteer volumes of information about themselves, which should make it easier for the platforms to provide quality, personalized experiences. For example, Facebook's "instant personalization" enables its partners to use public information-name, gender, networks, and other information one has made public-to serve up a personalized experience.

Twitter says it uses personalized content "to customize our services with more relevant content, like tailored trends, stories, ads, and suggestions for people to follow" and uses information in order to "help us deliver ads, measure their performance, and make them more relevant to you based on criteria like your activity on Twitter and visits to our ad partners' websites."

According to Business Insider, for Facebook, "personalization will be the theme for 2014." Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg was quoted as saying, "As we continue to leverage our understanding of people to make marketing more personal, and do it at massive scale, we will dramatically improve the quality of ads and drive more personal discovery."

But that "personal discovery" could come with a price. Irina Guseva, senior analyst for Real Story Group, notes, "Today's readers are impatient ... and somewhat unforgiving." As a result, content producers should tread lightly when it comes to pushing personalized content. Guseva, however, says not to worry about tipping your hand and scaring your customers with just how much you know about their online behavior. She warns against delivering the wrong message or bombarding them with personalized content too frequently. "Figuring out who your audience is and what they really want should be your first priority," she says. In her opinion-and research bears this out-customers are getting used to targeted marketing and don't object as long as it's useful to them.


Delivering personalized content effectively is easier said than done. "Doing personalization well is really hard; harder than many organizations, publishers and software vendors tend to think," Guseva says. CMS software "isn't always easy to use or flexible in terms of setting up personalization rules and segmenting audiences."

Added to the technical issues is the fact that, by its very definition, personalization is not a one-size-fits-all kind of process. "There are many varieties of personalization-from profile-based to predictive-but picking the method is not the solution. Gathering data (and the correct data) and analyzing it, according to personalization rules, is one of the most difficult tasks in this case."

Guseva notes that even in the early days of the CMS industry (in the early-to-mid-1990s), personalization was the next big thing. Today, things aren't much different.

"Nearly all of the higher-end tools offer some kind of personalization. The issue is that they may implement different types of personalization-that may or may not match with your particular needs," says Tony Byrne, founder of Real Story Group. "The initial mechanics around personalization are not too difficult. It's just making queries to a database and outputting streams of content and markup accordingly. However, some serious technical challenges will arise from there, especially around performance." Byrne says that tasks such as complicated look-ups take time, and personalized content is the enemy of caching-but these aren't the real landmines that content producers need to be on the lookout for.

"The bigger challenges are operational and editorial. You need to have custom content for all these different segments and really think through the logic of what's going to be displayed to whom and when," Byrne says. "And then you have to test it. Real Story Group's customer research suggests that testing for personalization (aka simulation) is an area of near universal weakness among the vendors."

So how do you get personalization right without the benefit of easy answers? According to Byrne, "Put a lot of analysis and thought into it. Traditional user-centered design methodologies are your friend here. Identify key personas and start with ‘big bucket' segmentation before you get into more narrow-gauge personalization. Make sure you have the right content or offers for those segments before proceeding-this is a common bottleneck. Then test, test, test-especially if you are mixing different types of personalization, like preference-based versus profile-based. Finally, don't forget to test performance." Guseva adds, "My main piece of advice in regards to personalization is to start small."

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