This article explores the difference between personalisation and contextualisation and assesses the risks and benefits.

Which one is right for your business? 

It’s become increasingly common for brands to personalise or contextualise the digital customer experience.

By optimising the online messaging for a specific audience or context, businesses avoid broadcasting the same message to ‘one and all’, making the experience more targeted and increasing sales.

But which to choose? Being able to personalise or contextualise depends on the availability and use of data: data about the user or data about the context.

Choosing an approach also depends on how the experience will feel to the customer.

For instance, with marketers conscious of treading the line between ‘cool’ and ‘creepy’, contextualisation can appear to offer a safe means of tailoring digital experiences without making it personal.

This post takes a look at both approaches, so you can choose the right one for your strategy.


A truly personalised experience must include digital tailoring focused upon a distinguishing feature of the user which is based on data identified, or assumed, via a number of different sources.

Broadly speaking there are four types of personalisation.

Triggered personalisation

A single action results in certain content being served to that user. A good example might be that anyone who signs up for a newsletter no longer sees the newsletter call to action.

It is an ‘if this, then that’ equation which would rarely allow the identification of an individual.

Behavioural personalisation

Points are assigned based on a user’s cumulative behaviour, which count towards them being assigned a persona once a threshold has been met.

Users who have been ascribed to a persona are served particular content targeted towards that group of people.

Amazon are the leaders in this sort of personalisation: by analysing the combination of products you’ve looked at their algorithm predicts what you might also be interested in.

The cumulative behaviour stored would have to be exceptionally detailed in order to allow the identification of an individual.

User set personalisation

The user is explicitly encouraged to personalise their digital experience by setting preferences about the type of content or interface they prefer. This is most commonly seen in apps where users are encouraged to set preferences around content and notifications.

They could provide personal and non-personal information but this approach carries less risk because the user is explicitly permitting personalisation based on information they are willing to share.

Profiled personalisation

Information known about the user and normally held within a CRM is used to serve specific content to that user or to assign that user to a persona group who are served that content.

A supermarket could use data about a customer gathered in-store and apply the insight to the content served on their website.

This type of personalisation often comes closest to involving ‘personal data’ in the legal sense. 


Unlike personalisation, contextualisation doesn't take account of anything specific about the user other than the context in which the user is ‘found’, requiring no information about the user other than that they have appeared within this certain context. 

Contextualisation is becoming increasingly popular. For example, several retailers now change what features on their homepage depending on the weather.

Some brands, such as Top Shop, have done this explicitly, while others, such as Blacks, integrate weather feeds to inform which products get featured.

The same principles can be applied to the context that it is evening rather than morning; that a user has arrived on the site via a particular link, or that a particular TV commercial has just been shown.

Does avoiding personal avoid creepy?

From a customer perspective, there is a high risk of being creepy if a brand uses information about someone’s personal life to tailor an experience.

For instance, there’s the (possibly) apocryphal story of how Target figured out an underage girl was pregnant before her father did.

It is also right to say that, when it comes to privacy, consumers are a lot more sensitive about personal information than any other type of information. 

From a privacy perspective contextualisation is safer because it never relies on ‘personal information’ (although personalisation doesn’t have to either).

The legal definition of personal information is: 

Data which relates to a living individual who can be identified from those data or those data and other information.’

However, contextualisation and personalisation can still be ‘creepy’ without being personal. This really comes down to how the messaging is communicated.

Using the analogy of a dinner party, you might have been told by a friend that Mr X likes to play tennis.

If you went up to him and straight away said, ‘I hear you like to play tennis’ he’s more likely to find it creepy than asking if he likes sport.

So while contextualisation should remove sensitivities about storing and processing personal information, this in itself is no guarantee against being creepy.

The most important thing is to approach both personalisation and contextualisation with the customer response in mind, so that the brand is deploying targeted messaging that feels relevant without being intrusive.

David Griffith-Jones

Published 12 June, 2015 by David Griffith-Jones

David Jones is Digital Strategist at Cedar DCX and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

2 more posts from this author

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Comments (7)

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

If the legal definition of personal information is, "Data which relates to a living individual who can be identified from those data or those data and other information", then Google should be able to find that phrase. But the only result I get is here. Typo? Link please.

about 3 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Ah. I think the author means the following. I am not a lawyer, but the "expression of opinion about the individual" phrase seems relevant as it would seem to exclude e.g. an assessment of whether the individual might like to buy an umbrella

Personal data means data which relate to a living individual who can be identified –
(a) from those data, or
(b) from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller,
and includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller or any other person in respect of the individual.

about 3 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

include, not exclude.

Not for the first time, I wish there was a way to edit comments :-(

about 3 years ago


Patrick NCHO, Founder & CEO at Mytourdeal

Great article thanks for sharing. I am building myself a travel booking app for personalized tours & activities called mytourdeal . When reading your post i can tell that our strategy lies on what you mentioned as "User set personalization". Our users will simply select the types of tours and activities depending on what you want to do or their mood and lifestyle. The app will surface instantly suggestions on available things to do tickets based on their own preferences directly from their smartphone. We have chosen this approach because we want to bring more personalization in the way traveler discover tours and activities.

about 3 years ago


Dotan Ginsbourg, GM, Idomoo UK at Idomoo

And I will add- create a positive emotional impact and not the opposite by implementing the correct creative work, timing, level and number of personalisation items etc.

about 3 years ago


James Gambrell, CEO at

If you're making efforts to understand your shoppers and use that understanding to give them a better experience, then the risk of being creepy shouldn’t be a problem. View it as rather than doing something 'to' your shopper you instead do something 'for' your shopper. In fact, recent research suggests that 79% of consumers have said they now want a more personalised approach from retailers. While it's correct to say that most consumers are wary of sharing personal information, evidence suggests they are willing to share their personal data when they know they will get something in return that they want from someone they trust, i.e. fashion that is relevant to them. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware and savvy that their data is part of a value exchange that takes place when they browse and buy. Good personalisation should involve contextualisation as well and should never look like personalisation to the consumer – more like the retailer is paying attention to their individual wants, needs and circumstance. As long as only reasonable, relevant personal data is used to for the customers’ benefit, and they can understand how or when that data was collected, personalisation won't be perceived as creepy, and the brand loyalty and repeat purchase levels will only improve as part of an enhanced relationship between consumer and retailer.

about 3 years ago

Michael Rizzo

Michael Rizzo, Marketing Manager at Mavenlink

Does anyone really think it's "creepy" anymore. Don't millenials and the majority of online shoppers already realize how much data is accesible about them now?

I for one don't care if someone knows I like Nike running shoes and Reebock workout clothes. I'm happy to purchase those products, so the moment I stop seeing ads for Victoria's Secret (thank to my wife for using my tablet) i'll be happy :)

about 3 years ago

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