Up close and personal

I'm trying to understand how personalisation works and I need some advice. I've heard lots about one-to-one mass marketing, and...

I'm trying to understand how personalisation works and I need some advice. I've heard lots about one-to-one mass marketing, and new customers in new markets, all with personalised products and services. But what is the reality of personalisation? Is anyone doing it well that I can learn from? Or is it all just a myth? How does my company start personalising its marketing? What technologies can I use, and where can I go for more information?

Imam Hoque , e-business consultancy Rubus
I have little to say about the technology of personalisation, but a big warning bell to sound about the legality of the practice! Under the Data Protection Act, personal information can only be used for the purposes for which it was originally collected, unless specific permission is sought from the subject. Thus, if the data is collected for one reason, it cannot then be used for the personalisation aspects unless additional steps are being taken.

Under the new act, 'personal' data is now data that can be identified with a specific individual by anyone: thus, a lot of anonymising technologies become less effective legally than they might be.

Neil Barrett , IT security consultancy, IRM
There are a couple of words that, in the interactive and e-business lexicon, have lost their meanings through overuse. 'Personalisation' is one such term. It's a word that appears in almost every functional requirements document and is something that we all know Internet services should be able to deliver.

It can make the difference between a good site and a great site, and yet it's an idea that is difficult to pin down to a precise meaning.

Part of the reason for this ambiguity is because we frequently try to define the concept of personalisation by focusing on the technology. By asking what tools can be developed to deliver a personalised interaction we are limited in what we create by the technology that is available at the moment.

But the heart of effective personalisation does not reside in technology. A better understanding of the tools will not deliver more successful personalised services. It is only through the deeper understanding of customer motivations and expectations that a more meaningful use of personalisation techniques will come about.

The goal of personalisation is to provide tailoring that is in the service of end user desires and could be used to focus on two aspects of doing business with a customer. Namely: controlling experience and controlling promotions. Any technology that allows a business to alter what a user interacts with in real time fits into this definition of personalisation. But the main criteria is that the user understands that the information they are looking at has been tailored.

This awareness is crucial to delivering a sense of genuine personalisation. If you want to create a personalised service, you must make your customers aware you are doing so.

Charles Lowe , independent consultant
The essence of good personalisation remains the mythical shop assistant, more common in days gone by than now. The combination of behaviours they can display are: excellent memory; recognition of purchasing patterns; classifying the customer according to socioeconomic indicators; observing shopping patterns; noting key variables impacting purchases, such as weather; tactful conversation to elicit feedback on previous purchases and suggest new purchases; and total discretion, never revealing personal information without permission.

No automated personalisation system meets all these exacting tests - yet. Which is perhaps surprising, given that most of these behaviours are ideally suited to automation. When it comes to memory and classification, computers cannot be beaten, and usually not for pattern recognition either. Computers can also process far more information in an eye-blink than our legendary shop assistant could in a lifetime.

The biggest issue to be overcome is the tactful suggestion of new products and services, where the absence of the human ability to pick up small nuances in response means that offence (and breach of privacy laws) can so easily be caused.

However, these are small issues indeed when set alongside the legion of companies (including, very sadly, many that are Internet-based) that bombard us with products and services that just a cursory glance at their records would indicate to be wildly inappropriate. Perhaps the time will soon be with us when it becomes socially acceptable to pillory such organisations for wasting time and resources.

So, do begin experimenting with personalisation now, before it's too late!

Our panel of experts
  • Imam Hoque of e-business consultancy Rubus

  • Roger Till, e-business user group, eCentre UK

  • Nick Maxwell, e-business consultancy Quidnunc

  • David Grimshaw, Cranfield School of Management

  • Neil Barrett, IT security consultancy IRM

  • Peter Boggis, Concours Group

  • Kevin Malone, IBM

  • Charles Lowe, independent consultant

  • Mike Pomerance, IBM global services, northern region

Read more on IT legislation and regulation