Web personalisation is a fast-growing area that has long-been used by some of the biggest brands and businesses in the world. Sceptics bemoan that we are increasingly stuck in giant filter bubbles.

But supporters, industry experts and a growing number of businesses see how it can revolutionise their online relationships and put the customer experience at the heart of what they do. 

According to Adobe’s product marketing manager EMEA Jamie Brighton in a recent online article:

Recent research from Adobe and Econsultancy reveals that 52% of digital marketers surveyed agreed that ‘the ability to personalise content is fundamental to online strategy. The more relevant the page the visitor lands on, the more likely they are to convert the sale.”

But web personalisation is not welcomed by everyone. The campaign hub team undertook a piece of qualitative research* on Facebook. It revealed that while people understand web personalisation is happening, there were some concerns about it being a 'bit big-brothery’ or limiting choice.

Here are some of the responses: 

I think it’s wrong because I’m being given an unbalanced biased view. I would want to know all information then decide for myself.

I get worried that I'm living in an ever decreasing bubble where I only see things on my past preferences.

It's limiting and stifling to be put in a box. I like diversity, choice and, really, at lot fewer adverts.

I deliberately avoid looking at it, feeling suspicious of anything that purports to know what I like and am interested in. They're almost always wrong.

However, despite these concerns, web personalisation is definitely happening; it has always happened and we believe it isn't something to be scared of.  Here we address a few of the myths consumers and marketers have about it: 

Myth 1:  We are all stuck in filter bubbles

Filter bubble by mothertongue.com

Only a poorly designed site would keep a user 'stuck' in any one section. Personalisation is about collaboration between you and your users.

It’s about creating a natural process of conversation between companies and customers. People will share what they want and information about themselves if you give them the chance to do it. 

Algorithms and filters are only a small part of the equation. When the data is used in combination with other parameters for example - what you already know about your visitors, past online journeys, Google search, IP address or Facebook profile data - then web personalisation becomes about so much more.  

This data enables you to respond to what you know they are interested in – giving the user relevant, useful landing pages and microsites.

In a recent online discussion hosted by The Guardian Malcolm Coles, Trinity Mirror’s product director, said:

I think the filter bubble is a bit of a myth. The internet lets us use data to show people what they are interested in so that they read it.

Publishers like the Mirror who are personalising content for readers on site are seeing increased engagement.

Myth 2 - It's a bit Big Brother for me

This was one of the major concerns highlighted by the campaign hub’s research. One responded said: “I think it’s a bit big brothery”.  

However, the consumer can still have the choice. A website using a cookie will automatically ask the user if they want their online movements to be monitored.  The user can decline. New rules coming into force will mean users will have to 'opt in' rather than 'opt out' of policies.

The recent spate of Facebook viral campaigns telling you how to keep your page private are just another way to remain anonymous.

The key to personalisation is being transparent. Giving your customer the choice. If they chose to engage with your site then you need to give them what they want.  For personalisation to work you customer needs to trust you.

Just like an old fashioned corner shop owner is trusted by his loyal customers. Collecting the data (which is happening whether we like it or not) and using it to deliver highly relevant content at the lowest sense of intrusion is the way to build this trust

Myth 3 - Data is the new oil

Data is everywhere. It is being generated at an astonishing rate as the clever Womma and Domo graphic above shows. Swiss media futurist Gerd Leonhard, who coined the phrase “Data is the new oil” says: “Data will become a key currency, as it is a virtually limitless, non-rival and exponentially growing”. 

We agree data is being collected at such vast rate, but think if data really is the new oil, someone needs to show the world how to use it. We have zillions of gigabytes of data, mostly locked away in old excel spreadsheets, or PDFs from Google Analytics but very few marketers actually use it properly.

Actually segmenting the data in the right way is important, but then you need to act on it to be relevant and for it to have impact. 

Myth 4 - It's expensive and complicated 

With new SAAS (software as a service) technology this is very easy to implement. It also negates the need for CMS (content management system).

With just a few lines of code pasted onto a website, marketers and website owners can easily create content and actions for each of the segments they have identified. Those actions might be a landing page, pop up form or email.

Platforms can cost as little as £99 per month. They take very little time and technical knowledge to set up and install on top of your existing website. A redesign is not necessary - content can be overlaid onto the existing website making it work harder for you without the overhead of a major overhaul.

Myth 5 – Web personalisation is only for big business 

This is no longer the case. With cloud based SAAS technology, any business can make use of web personalisation. From small hotels, shops, ecommerce companies, professional services firms to established brands, charities and not-for-profit. Web personalisation can grow your business, increase revenues and enhance customer engagement.

The good news from our research

From our research we found that people knew web personalisation is going on and were happy about it.  Many said that they believed it enhanced their online experience.  Here are a few of their comments: 

From a business perspective these are great tools that have a very good CTR (click through rate). On a personal level I find it is very helpful. Amazon or i-tunes, for example, have introduced me to new authors and artists I may not necessarily have been made aware of.

I'm not really bothered about it from a "big brother" point of view. In many ways it is actually useful - it cuts down my time trying to find things that suit me and it gives me good ideas.

I guess it is the price to pay for all the wonderful free content on the web. 

Overall, we believe personalisation is about engaging with customers by using technology in ways that mimic how we would do it if we were doing it face to face. The campaign hub refers to this as the corner shop mentality in a digital age.

We agree with a sentiment that appeared in hubspot’s piece, 60 ways personalisation is changing marketing.  

Point number 51 states:

In face-to-face sales and marketing, body language is the key. In online marketing, the key is taking note of the digital body language of your web visitors and customers.


*The research was carried out by the campaign hub using Facebook during the last week in September 2012.


Published 5 October, 2012 by Juliet Stott

Juliet Stott is a freelance journalist, content creator and a contributor to Econsultancy.  Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter

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Comments (8)

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Web personalization techniques also serve to improve customer service, increase sales and connect with prospective or potential clients. You can implement several types of intelligent Web personalization techniques to help your company reach its goals.

almost 6 years ago


Gareth Holt, Head of Technology at None at present

Re: Myth 4 - do you really think you could manage without a CMS ? For anyone with a content rich site, multiple editors etc, that's just a non-starter, and one of the reasons why personalisation *is* complicated.

almost 6 years ago


James Doman, Product Marketing Manager, Personalisation Specialist at SmartFocus


I think Juliet means that you don't need an expensive CMS that *offers* personalisation as a feature.

Now, web personalisation technology can be installed with a few lines of Javascript - however, for extra control, a deeper API integration would be worth the investment.

almost 6 years ago

David Mulhall-Brown

David Mulhall-Brown, Chief Operations Officer at VexPop

Myth #1 - We ARE stuck in filter bubbles. If my wife and I search for the same thing on google, we get different results based on past searches and web activity. That is a filter bubble. I don't want 'tailored' results. I want a most popular list.

almost 6 years ago


James Doman, Product Marketing Manager, Personalisation Specialist at SmartFocus

@David I think personalised search is a different kettle of fish from personalised content and recommendations.

In personalised content situations, the filter bubble is a myth - or at least a very thin bubble that can be popped quite easily.

I do agree there's a filter bubble in personalised search, and Google's Search Plus Your World does skew results. But, it can be turned off and there are alternatives.

almost 6 years ago

David Mulhall-Brown

David Mulhall-Brown, Chief Operations Officer at VexPop

I'm not so sure James. Here's an example - just the other day I visited a site that sells vitamins and now on 60% of the sites I visit I only see ads for THAT COMPANY. That's a bubble. I don't see any other content. No other products, nothing else that I might be interested in based on my interest in natural vitamins - just that company. And I can't turn that off. As far as I know, companies like Criteo don't allow me to turn off or change the ads they serve to me.

Recommendations are the same - they use expressed interest from me (and my friends) to try and target content to me. I don't get to see everything that's out there, I only see what they think I want to see.

Amazon is a notable exception BUT they DO target to me based on my past purchases - just on price. So the price I see for a particular book is different than the price my wife sees. This is even more offensive to me since I could be paying 'above the odds' for anything on their site. But I'll never know and I can't opt-out.

I understand why they do it - it's because they are only interested in selling me their crap. They don't care if I don't have a choice of loads of other products, in fact that's better for them.

almost 6 years ago


James Doman, Product Marketing Manager, Personalisation Specialist at SmartFocus

@David, creepy website-following ads are retargeting - that's very different. The ads are there to serve the companies (e.g. to make the ad company money, to make the advertised company money). Personalisation should act in the best interests of the user - attempting to meet their needs in realtime.

Those companies do actually let you opt out - http://www.criteo.com/us/privacy-policy. There is also a site that lets you opt out of all of them, but I can't find it.

Recommendations, I think, are very thin filter bubbles - you can quickly pop them and find what you're looking for.

almost 6 years ago


Karl Jayasingha

As James said the retargeting services are not personalisation, they are just using information on the sites you have visited previously to serve ads from them hopefully making them more relevant to you rather than a scattergun approach.

Also, I wouldn't consider Amazon to be doing personalisation, they use very simple collaborative filtering based on what you have looked at or purchased previously and serve them up to you. also the product recommendations are based around what people have done on this particular product not specifically geared up for you. I find the Amazon stuff very disapointing, for example, I bought a camera a while back, and now i get homepage recommendations for other cameras, but it would be better to target maybe lenses or accessories for this camera that I have not bought before. A true personalisation would look at what users who bought this camera have gone on to do and based on what you have purchased target relevant cross sell and upsell items.

Regarding the bubbles, an element of intelligent discovery is essential to ensure that users are opened up to more of the range and learn from those "experiments" to provide better personalisation for more users.

almost 6 years ago

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