Why personalization is a balancing act

Recently, I posted a picture of my bare feet on Instagram #withoutshoes for a great cause – a campaign by Toms to give away a million pairs of shoes to children in need. And I wasn’t alone. My Twitter and Facebook feeds filled up with pictures of feet, as well as related articles and products. Clearly, the campaign was a success.

IBM - Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service

IBM – Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service

But it got me thinking about the feeds themselves, and how social networks and other sites filter and personalize data to present us with content that they think we want. Sometimes they’re eerily prescient, and other times they’re simply unwanted. While I might have been interested in related wearables when I bought my Fitbit on Amazon, it doesn’t mean I want them dominating my searches long after my purchase.

Another downside of personalization is that consumers are frequently left in the dark about unseen options or information. For example, Google’s sophisticated matching algorithms return customized and personalized results for the same term to different users. Sometimes we don’t even know what we’re not seeing. And the more targeted that websites try to become, the greater the risk that they’ll miss their mark. Anyone who’s watched a trending music video on YouTube has experienced the odd result of being presented with unfathomably related music for weeks afterward.

But personalization is something most retailers now prioritize – to offer useful information, products and deals based on real-time data analysis of customer behavior and preferences. The recent IBM and Facebook partnership is further evidence that engaging customers with individualized content and offers is a major goal for retailers.

And consumers generally favor personalization. A recent Econsultancy and IBM study “The Consumer Conversation” found that only one in three consumers believe that their favorite companies understand them. Only 35 percent of consumers think that brand communications to them are relevant. And this sentiment is not limited to retail; it’s prevalent across all consumer-facing channels that have the potential to target and personalize.

While some organizations are working to understand and engage customers, most aren’t yet using that data to influence key engagement decisions, according to an IBM Center for Applied Insights study “Charting the Social Universe.” While increasing customer loyalty and advocacy was a top goal for pioneers, 70 percent of those surveyed who have deployed social analytics aren’t using them yet to influence decision making. This is an ambition with untapped potential.

Over time, the data itself may help us determine how much is too much. For now, the challenge of delivering in-context, personalized content and communications is a fine balance between paying attention to customers’ behavior and still giving them the freedom to explore new things without constraining their frame of reference.

Previous published on the IBM Center for Insights blog, June 9, 2015

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