Personalization isn’t what you think it is

What’s the first thing you think of when someone says the term ‘personalization?’ Is it your name inside the label of your sweatshirt, like your mom used to write? Or is it the technology that makes a website seem like it’s meant just for you?

Well, this blog post isn’t going to talk about the first kind, sorry. Perhaps what I meant to ask was “what do you think of when someone says personalization technology?”

If you are a marketer, chances are you’re quite familiar with technologies like Marketo and Eloqua. But the point I want to make is that true personalization isn’t just about tailoring the digital experience to how a user behaves.

Sure, that’s important. It’s just that it’s more than that. It’s really about tailoring the digital experience to match the kind of relationship that a user wants with your organization.

It’s all about relationships

Let’s get this out of the way first. Whenever you touch a member of your audience, be they prospect or customer, you form a relationship. That relationship can be positive, it can be negative. It can be strong, it can be weak. It can be fleeting, it can be long-lasting. But you’ve formed a relationship anyway.

In the book I recently co-authored, Recommend This! Delivering Digital Experiences that People Want to Share (Wiley, 2014), we identified nine characteristics of a relationship.

One of those characteristics is history. If we have a history, we have a relationship. And when your audience engages with you, be it in the aisles of a store or through a piece of digital content, history has been established (along with a bunch of other elements we won’t go into it).

That’s why doing business is all about relationships. And really successful businesses, like Apple, understand that.

People want different relationships from an organization 

Not everyone wants to watch a video or read a long piece of content or even look at pictures. Some people may just want some bullet points or to hear more from actual customers.

That’s because the kinds of content that an audience consumers reflects the kind of relationship that they want.

Consider the following illustration that captures four basic relationship types. Each type has a different kind of engagement style. One wants to be left alone while another wants as much attention from you as possible.

Of course, these types are not inclusive. There can be other relationship types and other names. But this is an attempt to demonstrate that not everyone wants to interact with you in the same way.


What’s important to understand, though, is that people change their relationship type like they change their socks. One moment they want nothing to do with you and the next they want to be your best friend.

How content type reflects relationship need 

Of course, there is no hard and fast rule to this but generally speaking, a deeper relationship type is far more likely to spend time with your content than someone who just “wants the facts.”

So in mapping the relationship types that we outline above to different content formats, you might come out with something like this:

  • You don’t see me. Wants bullet points and datasheets on the website; self-service information that is short and to the point; they might watch an occasional video…or maybe just the first 10 seconds.
  • Acknowledge. Still wants the bullet points and datasheets but might like to see what you are doing on Facebook; may even ‘like’ a post; is much more willing to read a case study or watch your video.
  • Attention hound. They love those blog posts, the content that may have nothing to do with your product and everything to do about you; they are active on Facebook and eager to click and share posts/links against which they can comment some more. Video is definitely a go, especially when they can discuss it.
  • BFF. You wrote an e-book? Okay, I’ll read it. These people believe in your company. They are part of the tribe and will commit the extra time to read and engage with long-form or video content.

How personalization fails today

The problem isn’t that digital experiences aren’t being personalized (well, let’s face it, some aren’t’), it’s that they aren’t taking into consideration all of the data elements that should be used to implement a personalized experience.

When our audience members are looking at a specific product, we ‘personalize’ the experience by giving them all of that product content. We don’t stop to think that they were more interested in the bullet points than the video (or vice-versa).

It’s not that personalization carried out in that fashion is wrong. It’s just that it’s missing a major component, how the audience wants to engage with your organization.

Can this be solved with technology?

It’s very possible that personalization and targeting software can evolve to meet this concept of personalizing based on relationship need.

Perhaps by tagging specific content elements within a digital experience according to content type and then using content type and click behavior to start offering specific content types (perhaps even by product) to users (rather than just more of the same content subject matter), we can get closer to true personalization.

What personalization gets you (when you do it right)

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Each time you engage with your digital audience (remember, we’ve established already that you form a relationship), it’s called a transaction. And each transaction has a positive, neutral, or negative outcome.

If the ultimate goal of business is to form deep and lasting relationships with customers (because they tend to spend more and tell their friends about how awesome you are) then the bulk of those transactions have to be positive. And how do you make them positive? Simple, by giving people what they want. 

You see where this is going, right? By personalizing the digital experience not only against how a user behaves but by what kind of content they have been consuming, you create the opportunity for more positive transactions.

You give them what they want…how they want it. That’s powerful.

Solving the problem today

Perhaps the technology exists today to solve this but it doesn’t really matter if it does because organizations still need to understand that personalization isn’t just about shifting menus and offering different pages of content.

It’s about serving up the kind of content that the user wants and that requires a mind-shift, not just a feature in some software suite.

But once that shift has been made, when an organization recognizes that personalization is all about cultivating relationships, they can produce all types of different content formats for all of their products.

That way, even if they can’t utilize technology to deliver exactly the right content to the right kind of relationship type, they can at least have content available that appeals to every kind of relationship. And that is a step closer to true personalization.