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.