29 Nov 2016

Personalisation at a crossroads: context or bust

The history of personalisation is lengthy and multi-dimensional, but we can safely say that 2007 is the year that modern marketers adopted it en masse.

And for the last ten years, the technologies fuelling personalisation have – to their credit – worked a treat. They have aided brands in their quest to foster better informed relationships with their audiences, and they have also quenched the developed thirst of consumers who now demand nothing less than a personally tailored digital experience.

In fact, according to a study carried out by Forrester, 79% of marketers said personalisation is very important to achieving their top marketing and customer experience goals.

But today, we find personalisation to be at a crossroads.

What Is Personalisation?

Before we discuss the troubling position that personalisation finds itself in, let’s take a look at what it is, and what it intends to do.

In its purest form, personalisation is the practice of customising a digital experience to a user’s specific needs and interests. That could mean highlighting special offers based on their purchase history, using their name in automated email correspondence, or for members and loyal customers, a brand might enquire about their interests and specialisms to target content more accurately.

Traditionally, the many different technologies behind personalisation work in an automated manner, gleaning actionable data from a user’s implicit behaviour, explicit behaviour, and explicit data coming directly from the user.

But therein lies the problem.

Skin Deep Personalisation

We have all lived through the dire experience of talking to an interactive voice response (IVR) system – more commonly known as the robotic voice that greets you whenever you call a major company’s phone line.

As we all know, an IVR presents a set of options and then adapts itself based on your interaction with the keypad. It’s a simple, boring, and sometimes frustrating experience.

But what’s the difference between IVR and poorly implemented digital personalisation, you ask? Well, not a lot.

They both depend on a limited set of data made up of binary interactions before adapting themselves accordingly – for better or worse.

If anything, the only major difference is that personalisation has the potential to be even more frustrating for the end user, particularly when data silos inevitably emerge.

The Impact on Automation

When a brand lacks the context to provide truly personalised customer journeys, another dimension of their business is affected by default; automation.

A prime example of this would be the scoring system used by some marketing automation systems.

If your system interprets interactions as engagements, and has a rule stipulating that more engagement is a positive thing, then your framework is flawed. This is because in the case of an angry customer sending you an email of complaint, the marketing automation system bumps up their score and responds in a way that’s tailored to a customer who’s happy with your brand.

After all, they went out of their way to send an email, right?

Suffice to say, such a mis-matched response doesn’t resonate well with already disgruntled customers.

The fundamental issue here, is a lack of context. Simply put, human beings are far more complex than the software we use gives them credit for.

Modern systems governing personalisation and automation are taking from data sets that are independent and binary – and that’s precisely why they rarely produce satisfying results.

This is due to the fact that binary interactions, taken at face value, tell you very little about what an actual human wants. Thus, as more channels emerge, and as consumer demands increase, it’s becoming ever more clear that the futile framework underpinning personalisation is bound to frustrate.

Context or Bust

As Pixl8’s Founder Alex Skinner recently said:

"Automation in and of itself is useful, but it needs to be broader than just marketing. Determining context, and making sure the organisation doesn't have blind spots, is vital.”

In other words, the automation we see in the form of personalisation and marketing needs to come together in a way never previously seen – and contextual data needs to be the glue.

Not only is context key in the fight for truly tailored experiences, but it’s also the only way to strike the balance between understanding a customer, and creeping them out with your unnervingly large set of person-specific data.

In order to achieve this, a brand’s data needs to be universal, adaptable, transferable, and integratable. The path with least resistance seems to be that of a united front, where a sophisticated rules and conditions management system acts as the central hub for all things customer experience related.

Saving personalisation

Sure, the automation systems behind both personalisation and marketing have held their own for a number of years, but the harsh reality is that these systems are now at risk of becoming the IVR of the internet – and that’s nothing short of disastrous.

If personalisation is to be saved, it’s high time that the software vendors powering such systems wake up and smell the context.

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