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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Everybody’s Doing The Social Commotion…

The hype with social has become so big that a whole new industry of “social-experts” has appeared out of thin air. Just a few years ago these people did not exist or perhaps wore some other moniker when peddling their wares.

I am not saying there is no need to have a social strategy but merely that it is also important for to think about the relevance of these platforms for your product and business; think about the best way to engage your customers, based on who they are. This means that every company DOES NOT needs to have a social presence with a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Pinterest board, or a blog. Maintaining a presence in social media is a full time job and doing it in a way that is meaningful to customers and valuable for your business – is a full team job. Few people realize that just setting them up and then posting or tweeting a few times is probably more damaging than not having it an account all. I routinely ask companies why they feel they need a Facebook page or Twitter account, and most say because everyone else has one. For me, a single person startup or small business should have many other priorities they need to be focused on before starting to worry about tweeting every few hours. And then there are also products and categories that really should not have a Facebook page – toilet papers and clogged drain cleaning brands come to mind as high on that list. Ultimately, it boils down to a little old fashioned common sense being utilized before rushing to sign up to the social bandwagon.

It takes time and work to build a solid social presence. Each new platform that you add means more work because it’s not as simple as sharing the same information across all your social pages. If you really want to build value for your business then you need to create value for your customers. This means first understanding the role of Twitter versus Facebook versus a blog and seeing how your customers are using and interacting with these platforms. Only then can you start to formulate a strategy to effectively make use of them for your needs. For example, Facebook can be an effective platform for building a community around your brand; by sharing information, starting discussions, soliciting ideas and requesting feedback on your products and/or services. It can be a great way to build loyalty through engagement and dialogue. Help to create long-term relationships with your customers and maybe turn them into evangelists; if done well. Twitter on the other hand is a great tool for more instant sharing. You can use it to announce new product launches, special flash sales and even to resolve customer complaints in real-time; as Dell and Southwest have done so effectively.

No matter which social platform(s) you decide to use there are a few things you have to be prepared to do; if you want to succeed. First and most importantly, get over yourself, your products and your services. I don’t care how great you think they are – it does not matter if you think so – it only matters if your customers do. Never use social media to blow your own horn; nothing is more off putting to an existing or prospective customer than a company telling them how brilliant they are. Second, never try to sell, sell, sell – you have sales people and channels for that. Social media is not a hit them on the head type selling tool. You can place ads for that. Find smarter and more subtle ways to offer value to your customers that will in turn lead to sales or generate word-of-mouth for your brand. Third, make sure that what you share will be of interest to your customers, beyond just your company stuff. This means not restricting yourself to tweets or posts that are always about your products and/or company. Take some leaps and broaden your horizons. Don’t be scared to follow interesting people, to be creative, human and inspirational. Share things that make you laugh and things that make people laugh about you. Share stories about your customers and even your competitors. All this helps make your brand and company come across as more secure and confident; and those are typically the kinds of brand that customers are attracted to and like to be associated with.

Finally, remember that you will need to grow a very thick skin. By putting yourself out there, and you will be if you do this well, be prepared for harsh criticism from customers and screw ups by employees (have an action plan to deal with them when they happen but don’t retreat). This is the price you have to pay to truly come across as real, in a world where very little can be controlled and preplanned. This will ultimately determine the difference between your social success and failure – how “real” or contrived your company comes across.