It’s about control: the perils of misunderstanding personalisation

There’s plenty of research about retargeting’s benefits, but Tyler Greer would like to see research on the damage done by pummelling users with material they’ve shown little interest in.

Until recently, I worked with a guy called Tom. He was a pretty good guy, but he did something that seriously strained our relationship. He arranged all the apps on his phone by order of colour. Meaning, on the home page sat all the blue apps, on the second all the green, then all the orange, the yellow, and so on. It was an awful sight to behold.

But it is entirely Tom’s prerogative to set up his screen in any way he wishes. That’s what makes it his phone. We have a word for that kind of action: personalisation.

The permeation of digital into almost every aspect of our lives is giving us ever greater discretion around the way we set up our devices, curate the  information that reaches us, and consume content. Sounds great right? Well it could be. But the problem is that the media business often misunderstands the meaning of personalisation – and  does so at its peril.


More than a buzzword

Personalisation is more than another industry buzzword. It is of profound importance to the success of the interaction between brand and customer.
Placing the customer at the centre of the experience is so obvious a brand strategy now that it barely needs stating. We’ve come to understand and accept that while segmentation may still dominate the way we view audiences, people are in fact individuals. According to Salesforce, 72% of customers say “they expect companies to treat them like an individual, not a number”, while Wunderman’s research suggest that 79% of customers “only consider brands that show they understand and care about me”– all proving not only that we live in a time of great change, but great self-importance.

In the digital media world, the view of personalisation looks somewhat different: I visit a website and look at shoes. For the next four weeks, I am provided advertising for those same shoes across every site I visit. Whether I have purchased the shoes or not, the experience continues. Whether I am a
potential customer or simply looking at them to give opinion for a friend the experience continues. The idea behind this is: “if Tyler has looked at this pair of shoes, then showing these shoes in an ad suggests a level of personalisation which will make Tyler feel the brand understands Tyler better
than its competitors.”

What it actually demonstrates is the technical ability to harass me across 50 web sites.

Yet, while there is quite a bit of research surrounding the (alleged) effectiveness of retargeting, there is scant research on the damage done by a system that pummels users with brands and products they have shown little interest in other than having once visiting a website. Now that is research I’d like to see.


Personalisation means control

The retargeting experience described above isn’t just wildly irritating – it belies a critical misunderstanding of the digital experience. Namely, that the audience is in control. The audience, thanks to digital, increasingly chooses what they consume, when they consumer it, when they start and finish it, on which device they’ll see it, and how or if they will pay for it. If we don’t understand this, we don’t understand digital.

The digital media market should: consider that personalisation does not mean retargeting with images of previously looked-at products. It means control – the ability for the user to decide whether they are interested in content, and to be provided the tools to explore that story and those assets within an ad unit itself.

And: marry it with a reporting system and buying model that complements it.

I’ll say it again as it is worth repeating until the whole of our industry understands it: personalisation means control.


The science backs this up

There’s a number of studies that corroborate this. JWT’s ‘Control Shift’ report, for example, found that 89% of consumers agree control is important to them, and that ‘people are seeking out brands that provide them with content and the ability for them to control their experience with it.’

JWT’s conclusion: “If you don’t give consumers control they don’t engage, they don’t get to like the brand, and they don’t get to like your product. They don’t buy.”

Not long ago, my own company ran a test campaign with Microsoft to try out our VDX video units that offer a video teaser inviting the user to be a part of the advertising experience. Engagement is measured after several seconds of interaction, and the buying models kicks in then. The test subjects responded to this experience with almost all describing the experience as feeling personal, as though designed for them specifically. Notably, this is because they felt they had control.

There is something else as well. Giving the user more control within the ad unit space can actually give insight into what matters for consumers. Clicks can only tell us so much in a market desperate for consumer insight. By allowing the user control, they can tell us what they are interested in. If an
ad holds three products and one attracts a disproportionate amount of attention compared to the other two, what does this tell us? About the brand, the product, the audience, the creative, the strategy?

Maybe nothing. Maybe something really important.

My (weirdly compulsive) friend Tom may or may not keep his apps arranged in the most annoying of ways. That’s his choice. He has control and can personalise his digital life – so does everyone else. But If the industry doesn’t begin designing advertising experiences which embrace this truth, the
audience will exert control in the only way left to it: with adblocking.


Tyler Greer is director of global sales strategy at Exponential.



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