A few years back, my universe was vast but choices were limited. I was introduced to this beautiful innovation called ‘e-commerce’. It was a roller coaster ride. Things were overwhelming—brands having their presence online, allowing me to buy whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted them. Everything was great. Except for the fact that, as an online customer, I felt, I was always being force-fitted into a segment, a group based on demographic and behavior—into a stereotype.
My identity narrowed down to being a 27-year-old, South Indian, female, easily being pushed into a persona based on the average.
I was unique, I thought. But internet and e-commerce brands told me otherwise.
I was almost always shown pink tops, slim-fit jeans, and stilettos. I did not want them, but that did not matter. Other girls of my age bought them, so I was pushed to do the same.
But, things have changed. Right now, I’m happy because I receive more accurate services. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration if I said that this is the best time to be a customer.
Businesses are built around us—customers. Brands strive day-in and day-out to make us feel special, feel loved. They have finally found a cure for generalization. Customers don’t need to feel a part of the ordinary again.
Marketers call it ‘Personalization’. Wikipedia defines personalization as ‘tailoring of a service or a product to accommodate specific individuals, to meet their needs.’
Whatever you want to call it, and however you want to define it, thanks for giving me what I want. There ends the era of fishing for commonalities and fitting yourself into a thick bordered segment.
Sixty-one percent of people expect brands to tailor experiences based on their preferences. Futhermore, 90% of leading marketers say personalization significantly contributes to business profitability. As such, leading brands are creating value for shoppers based on their past interactions.
– Think with Google
But, hold your horses. Let’s not get carried away. There is a lot of debate around personalization. On one side, there are these great advantages around a personalized experience. But on the other side, it means a hit on your privacy. “Walls have ears” in the true sense. I’m not sure if I have a problem with giving away too much information about myself on account of getting a personalized experience—a world that makes me feel special.
However, I have always thought of this. I, as an individual, embody multiple personas depending on situations, people around me, learnings, and experiences. I can assure you that my taste and inspirations have changed multiple times in the last couple of months. So, how can brands continue to personalize my experience? What I like today might become my least favorite thing tomorrow.
Being stuck in a brain squeeze, I decided to test this out. I spent a month observing personalization around me as a customer. Did I like it or not? I have documented my thoughts here. Let’s see if we share the same thoughts.
It’s all about ‘me’
For the past one month, on observing my search patterns, I noticed a massive shift in the way I searched for things. I attribute this shift to the introduction of conversational search models like live chat, voice search, virtual assistants, and personalized Google recommendations. I observed that my search shifted from more generic to being more localized and personalized; example – “restaurants in MG Road” to “restaurants near me”.
It’s like I’m constantly looking for purchase recommendations that suit my personal choice, somehow assuming that Google knows who I am and what I like the best.
Five years back my search for shampoo was just a plain old “best shampoo” on Google. But now, I meticulously type out “best shampoo for dry hair” or occasionally a greedy, “best shampoo for my hair”(come on Google, I know that you know me well). Now, Google knows that I have dry hair, so there is a definite probability of Google showing me recommendations for dry hair in the future.
I got curious and started getting to the root of this pattern. Is it just me or do we see a lot of people with similar search patterns?
Well, looks like I’m not alone. Here is a sneak peek of the search pattern of consumers observed by Google.
We’re seeing this personal advisor theme play out quite literally, as people are specifically including qualifiers like “me” and “I” in their searches. Over the past two years, mobile searches with the qualifier “for me” have grown over 60%. For example, consumers aren’t just searching for “best car insurance” anymore, they’re searching for “best car insurance for me.” Or, “which dog is right for me.”
– Lisa Gevelber VP, Marketing for the Americas at Google
I personally love this trend. As a consumer, I don’t just look for results, I look for ideas and inspirations as well. I also appreciate a recommendation that is fast and easily accessible. As a marketer, if you can deliver answers and provide engagement that is personalized and localized, that helps your brand stand apart from others.
The future of marketing is all about delivering relevant, useful, and assistive experiences.
– Matt Lawson, Vice President, Ads Marketing at Google
When you observe the root of this trend, you understand that it’s a chicken-egg scenario. Google fabricates personalized search recommendations because we search using such keywords. And we look for such personalized recommendations because Google offers such customized results. It’s an infinite loop. If it was up to me, I would say it’s a win-win.
Having personalized content ensures better context sensitivity and relevance during search.
The incomplete journey
I feel that personalization should not just stop with web searches, website localization, recommendations, and offers in the virtual world. Engaging with your customers at the ground level (offline stores) is as important as your online engagement and personalization process.
Let me give you an example. I religiously visit this Starbucks outlet five miles away from my house every weekend to meet my friends, have some coffee, and conversations. This has been happening for the past two months. With an extensive menu at display, people generally experiment with their choices. Unfortunately or fortunately, my palette is not as eclectic as others. I stick to a conventional cafe latte with a touch of hazelnut—my go-to order.
This one particular Saturday, as I stood in the queue to place my order, the person at the counter smiled and prompted, “Cafe latte with hazelnut?” He knew exactly what I wanted. He also suggested a choice of a spicy snack to go with it. My order was placed in seconds and I received my coffee instantly. It felt great. This type of ‘personalization’ would be a true win for brands. As a customer, this stood out to me.
Imagine how great it would be if this happened at all times, the only difference being that person serving coffee needn’t remember faces.
Personalization should be facilitated by data.
I know for a fact that Starbucks is trying to ace its game of online personalization with its ‘digital flywheel strategy’. By the end of fiscal 2019, Starbucks is aiming to make 80% of its global stores accessible to the digital flywheel strategy. The Starbucks marketing teams will use the company’s personalization engine to engage with customers and develop loyalty. That’s a relief.
Why doesn’t this happen with all the brands?
As mentioned in my blog on e-commerce trends, 50% of the millennials actually prefer going to a physical store at some point in their buyer journey.
This just shows that most of the shoppers prefer going to retail stores. Which means there is a huge scope for brands to work on their personalization strategy at the offline-store level.
I went to a Nike store to purchase some running shoes. It took me around 10 minutes to explain the type of shoes I am looking for. The salesperson was trying to help me out. I gave him as much information as I possibly could. However, nothing seemed to be enough to find the perfect pair of shoes that suited my requirements.
That got me thinking, “wait a minute, I use Nike+ run club app for all my runs. I’m sure they have a huge repository of data related to my running pattern, landscape, time interval, frequency, usage, and so on.” Why isn’t the inventory mapped with this data? For a person who is a loyal customer of Nike, this is the least they could do.
I wasn’t quite sure if I was disappointed. But I did feel the need to be at the receiving end of seamless integration of data with personalized recommendation and delivery. Not just at online experience, but also at store level.
No personalization story can escape quoting this brand. Netflix—a brand that truly transformed artform personalization and redefined engagement in every way possible.
I tested out Netflix’s personalization strategy with my colleagues – Raghav and Danny.
Raghav and Danny are known to have disparate tastes in movies and artforms. Danny loves high comedy, and dark humor, whereas Raghav likes to binge on light-headed humor. They both love psychological thrillers and suspense. Raghav is a huge fan of Matthew McConaughey whereas Danny isn’t fond of one particular actor.
Here is a screenshot of Danny’s Netflix home page.
Pay close attention to the thumbnail image for “The Wolf of Wallstreet”, “Suits”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Limitless”.
Now, take a look at Raghav’s Netflix home page and observe the same thumbnails. Do you notice the difference?
It’s unbelievable how Netflix has used different thumbnail images depending on the type of content Raghav and Danny consume. If you observe, Raghav’s home page is entirely different from Danny’s. This might be because of their preference in genres or themes, or because of their preference for a particular cast.
Netflix came up with this blog post called Artwork personalization at Netflix where they talk about how they achieve personalization.
This is yet another way Netflix differs from traditional media offerings: we don’t have one product but over a 100 million different products with one for each of our members with personalized recommendations and personalized visuals.
– Netflix Tech Blog
Netflix achieves this by scoring the popularity of a show against the predicted ranking in terms of likability of a particular individual. Thus, displaying a truly unique recommendation screen to each and every individual consumer.
I personally cannot ask for something better. I love the fact that Netflix caters to my preferences and designs its homepage based on my choices.
However, there is a downside to this as well. Netflix recently attracted criticism for the same personalization. Showing customized thumbnails depending on preferences without keeping the content in mind might seem very click-baity. It’s important to not cross the line.
“It’s weird to try to pass a film off as having a Black principal cast (by creating a movie poster-like as featuring just the Black people) when it’s a white movie. A very white movie. I’d already watched this one last month so I knew it was a marketing trick. Still,” – Stacia Brown, Netflix user.
My new best friend?
To sum things up, I love the fact that personalization offers a truly unique world that I can thoroughly enjoy. My Google Home and search history know more about my life than my best friends. My voice assistant knows what type of music I like, what kind of comedy I watch, what temperature setting is my favorite, where I go, what cuisine is my favorite, when I go to sleep, my dream trip, and a lot more.
My favorite e-commerce shops cater to my style and preferences. They constantly keep telling me what’s in trend based on my previous search patterns and what’s popular amongst my demographic.
Best part? I love how websites and ads are being personalized these days. We spoke about how Netflix looks different to different people. I’ve observed the same in other e-commerce websites as well. I’m sure you must have noticed how Amazon page looks different for different people as well.
Even YouTube changes its recommendations based on your preference. I remember, once, my husband and I were displayed two different trailers of the same movie depending on the time we usually spent on watching such content. My husband was shown a 6-second video, whereas I got to see a full-length trailer. I’m sure we wouldn’t have been so impressed if it had gotten interchanged.
Successful personalization happens when there is seamless integration between the data collection junction and all the other touchpoints of a user journey.
We’re heading toward an age of assistance where, for marketers, friction will mean failure, and mass messages will increasingly mean “move on.” – Google
Sins of personalization
The whole time, I wrote about what I loved the most about personalization. Every coin has two sides. I still believe that there is so much scope to improve smaller nuances of personalization as a trend and also tone it down a bit at some places.
One thing that I hate the most about personalization as a customer is the fact that it stagnates my identity. Like I mentioned before my experiences and exposure to different things around me might influence my taste and choice. I’m not sure if personalization takes that into account.
I know for sure that my favorite actor has changed multiple times in the last one year. I got bored of my favorite color. The recommendations that I love today might not be something that I would prefer after two weeks.
Secondly, addiction. Personalization is done with the intention to keep the audience engaged mainly. Let’s take Netflix for instance. I’d always been hooked onto Netflix for the relevant recommendations it offered. I then noticed that I started spending too much time on the site, that I ended up unsubscribing. This is counter-productive to the actual goal. Addiction and temptation are by-products of personalization. This is great to keep your audience engaged. But, brands need to understand that consumers might take a conscious effort to stay away from addiction. This is how personalization turned to be a disadvantage for Facebook as well.
The next thing I hate about personalization is that it turns out to be borderline creepy. One video that I watch on YouTube might trigger similar ads on every website that I visit. One content piece that I click on might stalk me the whole day. It just feels suffocating and creepy, at the most. So much so that Google already knows what I’m thinking about and prepares itself to throw out recommendations as soon as I open a tab.
Lastly, validation. These days websites seem to show a transparent picture of who I am and what my preferences are. Without my knowledge, I start validating my choices. I don’t allow myself to enjoy something for the feel of it. I start questioning my one-time click-throughs because they are going to be saved for future references and they are going to impact my future recommendations. There is no freedom of choice, internally.
Am I allowing you to stagnate my identity? What if I’m not who you think I am? What if I want to change? What if my style changes, my preferences change? Is personalization rooting my preferences into a role that I’m trying to portray? Too many questions to be answered.
Just like how every technology has its own good and bad sides to it, personalization is no way different. Brands have to make a conscious effort to ensure that they do not cross the line of privacy but at the same time enable relevant recommendations and purchase. Let me know your thoughts!