Why Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Others Have Personalisation Wrong.

Today, it is hard to escape digital technology’s great promise of personalisation and customisation. Every company under the sun is touting tailored customer experiences. One based on learning about individual habits, preferences and interests; driven by our past behaviours, choices and actions.

Every advertiser and marketer swears the new ‘holy grail’ of connecting more intimately with customers, and they are racing to build algorithms and artificial intelligence that gets better, as it learns, at predicting future decisions based on past behaviours. They learn about our interests, hobbies and consumption habits in a bid to sell us more of what we ‘want’.

Amazon recommends products based on our purchase and browsing history. Netflix suggest movies based on our viewing history. Delta sends us special deals based on our travel history. The Wall Street Journal recommends news articles based on our reading history. Facebook shows us posts in our news feed based on our ‘likes’, and even the screensaver image on my PC asks me to like the pictures I want to see more of – well, you get the picture.

However, I believe every one of these companies has got it wrong. There exists a fundamental flaw in the way they are approaching personalisation, one that does not truly deliver on the greatest promise of the internet and digital technology.

The internet, beyond connecting the world, allowing us to share, engage, collaborate – is about discovery. The ability to discover new peoples, cultures, places and even points of view. It has the ability to open our minds, widen our worldview and expand our horizons through discovery; so why show us more of what we already know, like, see and do?

It is great that technology has allowed companies to peek into our daily lives (for those who opt-in), and digital tools in turn allows them to deliver experiences and messages uniquely tailored to us. But here is what I want them to do with this power – use it to deliver on the greater promise – one that opens each of us up to new ideas, enables us to experience new things, and even challenges conventional beliefs and viewpoints. Let’s use it to experiment with broadening our worldview; rather than limiting it based on what we already see and do.

Only by doing this can we begin to unlock the potential of the human mind and deliver what I believe to be the holy grail of technology.

Today, Facebook’s feed algorithm works to show us more of what we already like. The same holds true for Twitter or CNN’s article suggestions and the principles behind every other personalisation algorithms – they are designed to show us more of what find most agreeable.

As a result there is little debate and no authentic discussion because we are in essence talking to ourselves. More importantly we learn nothing new, if we don’t have the opportunity to experience views, ideas and thoughts that are very different from our own.

Currently, technology is only perpetuating our natural human instincts to find and then quickly form safe, secure and comfortable tribes and online havens. Yet, societies only make progress through discord, based on debating conflicting ideas and diametrically opposed views, before the majority can find common ground and reach consensus to move forward on the most contentious issues.

My challenge to every company is to start applying a different set of principles their algorithms and in doing so redefine the idea of ‘personalisation’ along the following lines:

40% what I already like
+ 40% things that are new and different (stretch my worldview)
+ 20% that I will dislike/disagree with (challenge my thinking)

Now imagine what your Facebook and Twitter feed, Netflix recommendations, Open Table picks and Fox News or CNN article suggestions will begin to look like. I guarantee they will be richer, more rewarding and in time will also help us bring back civil dialogue and respectful debate on both the most divisive political and social issues; not to mention that our minds and society will be richer for it.

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Netflix, Data, Drunkard’s and Adam Sandler

There has been much discussion about Netflix’ recent announcement signing Adam Sandler for an exclusive four movie deal to be premiered on Netflix. It has also generated talk of the beginning of the end of the traditional Hollywood studio model as well as praise for Netflix use of data to make a content investment decision; albeit, this particular decision has left many people scratching their heads.

Let’s start with the fact that it has been a while since Mr. Sandler made a commercially successful or comedically substantive film; while Grown Ups fared better, he did not carry that movie. If you ask people to name their favourite Adam Sandler movie, most say Wedding Singer and movie buffs will add Punch-Drunk Love. His last few films, ‘That’s My Boy’ and ‘Blended’ have been critically panned and box office duds. In fact, the last movie, Blended, might have had a longer advertising campaign preceding the release, than the actual run it had in theaters!

On the lack of critical and commercial success, Netflix’s content chief has a data counterpoint: “Very uniquely, he stands out for his global appeal to Netflix subscribers. Even movies that were soft in the U.S. [theatrically] outperformed dramatically on Netflix in the U.S. and around the world.” (Source: Hollywood Reporter).

Don’t get me wrong, I love data and am a big advocate for using it to make better and more informed business decisions. However, I am also against over-reliance on data and using it without the benefit of judgement to accompany the decision-making process. My thinking is best explained by David Ogilvy who once exclaimed about the ad industry’s over-reliance on research – “I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.”

If one were to take a closer look at Netflix catalogue you will find that of the twelve highest rated comedy films, currently available in USA (as of October 2014); 2 are foreign (The Intoucahbles and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), 8 were made between 1953 and 1987 (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, The Graduate, Charade, White Christmas, MASH and Good Morning Vietnam), only 2 are from this century – Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012).

Additionally, their top comedy recommendations for me include ‘Maz Jobrani: I come in Peace’, ‘Tortilla Soup’ and ‘Welcome to Dongmakgol’; each movie gets 4.5 / 5; stars as personalised recommendations for me. No doubt you are also scratching your head and asking “Max who?” and what the %$%^*$%* a Dongmakgol and can it be eaten?

Then there is also the fact that Netflix continues to have a large selection of Mr. Sandler’s movies in both the US and abroad; “We had almost all of Adam’s movies in the first pay window in the U.S. Today, we continue to have those movies in the first pay window in Canada. And then, through various windows that follow the pay window all the way to the deep catalog, we’ve licensed Adam’s movies in all of our territories.” (Source: Hollywood Reporter). Considering these two data points one could surmise that Netflix has a pretty poor selection of comedy films in their library but a wide selection of Mr. Sandler’s movies.

If you are like most people, who sign-up for a monthly subscription service, you only feel you are getting value for your money if you are able to watch movies frequently. You start by looking for recent comedy films, finding none you tend to default to one with a recognisable actor. On both these counts your Netflix search will deliver an abundance of Mr. Sandler’s titles because of the limitation of their current comedy catalogue. I have no doubt that their viewing data is accurate, and many subscribers are watching Mr. Sandler’s films, even repeatedly; but if I were to add a dose of judgement I would also guess that this is has less to do with his popularity or the quality of the films, and all to do with the fact that there is really nothing else worthwhile to watch…

Then there was also the bizarre press release issued by Mr. Sandler saying he signed this deal because “Netflix rhymed with wet chicks.” Hopefully, this is not an early indication of the substance of each of the $40 million a film that Netflix is reportedly paying him. (Source: Reuters).

While I laud Netflix use of data (House of Cards is a brilliant case in point) and for continually breaking ground in entertainment and forcing studios and TV networks to think in a more customer-centric manner; I am not sure I agree with their choice of Mr. Sandler. I wonder if this is an instance of using data for illumination, rather than support; but either way it will be interesting to see who has the last laugh.