There is an expanding, murky world of ‘hidden’ online marketing personalisation. Indeed, a growing number of companies are personalising marketing banners on their corporate websites – based on the visitor’s cookies or IP address, for example – in ways that are invisible to the user.
But if you’re going to personalise things like product and article recommendations on your site, it’s best to make it clear to visitors both how you’re personalising information, and the value of this to them.
This is one aspect of personalisation in which Amazon and co offer relevant lessons for corporate web mangers:
‘Recommended products’ is not nearly as useful a heading as ‘Customers who purchased this item also bought this product’.
If you tell visitors how and why you’ve personalised information, it gives them the context they need to make the best use of it – as well as conveying an impression of openness and transparency about how and why their personal data is being used. This last point is increasingly important from a reputation management perspective.
Personalisation is no substitute for good navigation
Logical, comprehensive and intuitive navigation menus can be complemented by personalised links – they can’t be replaced by them. Why?
First, one-off visitors, and those with private browsing mode switched on, simply won’t get your personalised material.
Second, Bowen Craggs’ website visitor research shows that people come to websites for a myriad of reasons – and often want to visit multiple sections. On a corporate site (rather than, perhaps, a selling site), it’s vital to give these users the opportunity to go on their esoteric, serendipitous journeys as they see fit, rather than to force them down pre-set routes based on what you think they will want.
One more reason not to make your website too reliant on personalisation functionality: doing so could pose a big problem in future if regulators, web browser makers or others change their approaches to use of personal data.
Beware of filter bubbles
Related to the above point, overzealous personalisation can be downright counter-productive. Just as personalisation in the world of online news can push people into cultural and political echo chambers, personalisation on a corporate site risks making potentially useful messages and information less visible – or even invisible - to some visitors.
At Bowen Craggs, we’re big fans of related links. But that is partly because they’re a mechanism for ‘cross-selling’ to visitors things or information that they not only didn’t know about, but also didn’t think they wanted to know about. That’s very different from the principle of personalised links, which is to try to second-guess what a visitor might also want.
Vigorous personalisation can also make users feel robbed of their sense of free will. I have a colleague who is infuriated with a new BBC app because it insists on showing him only radio programmes that it thinks he would like, rather than allowing him to browse the full range of output on offer.
Make sure it’s useful – and not broken
The last two decades are littered with failed attempts to personalise corporate websites.
In some cases, this was because the personalisation simply didn’t work properly. One corporate site’s Careers section once offered me ‘tailored vacancy information’ that focused on US military veteran postings. I am neither an American nor a military veteran.
Another site once invited investor relations section visitors to ‘tailor your experience to your needs’. Few visitors wanted to make a ‘tailored experience’: they just wanted to get results data as quickly as possible.
Yet another site recently experimented with tailoring a product-related primary navigation menu link based on the visitor’s browsing history. It was soon abandoned: it was not made clear to visitors when and why the primary menu changed, increasing confusion rather than convenience.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest lesson in the history of corporate site personalisation is that bad personalisation is far worse than no personalisation at all.
- Scott Payton
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