Choice. It’s a concept that humans have an inherent love-hate relationship with. The freedom to choose is an integral part of helping to define who we are as individuals. In fact one might argue that it forms the very backbone of modern-day capitalism. But too much choice can also be a bad thing. As humans we tend to dither back and forth when presented with TOO many options, because we’re fearful of choosing the wrong one. And choice can also be a lot of WORK. I spent the last two months trying to choose the right college savings plan for my daughter. With over 50+ plans on the table, the level of research and time required verged on the ridiculous. But good news is at hand. Because in 2011 I think we’re finally going to see the rise and dominance of frictionless personalization, which could lead to a truly groundbreaking shift in how we perceive choice.
When I was growing up in the UK we – like most households – bought a daily newspaper. Hard to believe in this day and age, but in the 1980s the newspaper was a cornerstone of many working class families. They’d be fights over reading it. Arguments about the stories in it. And outrage every time the cover price increased by 1 or 2 pence.
The newspaper was the ultimate mass reach vehicle. There was limited choice (it’s very expensive to start and operate a newspaper so in the UK we were limited to around 5-6 daily newspaper choices) and the content was clearly not personalized to individuals, but instead to groups of individuals who shared similar beliefs. Back then those groups were generally defined along political lines – with a host of right wing (Conservative) newspapers and a couple of left wing (Social-Democratic) papers. Newspapers were able to get around the lack of personalized content by covering everything they felt people needed to know. So while you might not be interested in the ENTIRE newspaper (as a kid I used to hate the horse racing section), the odds were that there was something in there of interest to you. And at the time this broad reach, limited choice, lack of personalization model worked just fine. In fact it was so fine that it made newspapers one of the most lucrative businesses in the world.
When the Internet came along – allowing anybody to publish content fairly cheaply which resulted in an explosion and over-supply of content – consumers were suddenly free to explore their niche interests. While web sites weren’t personalized to individuals, they did allow these individuals to explore niche interests more deeply at a low cost. My daily newspaper was never going to be the authority on the latest Ferraris coming out of Italy (another one of my childhood obsessions), but you could guarantee that a host of sites would.
So while consumer choice expanded and Google graciously provided a new way for people to discover content and bring order to the chaos of the Web, the issue of personalization was still not too hot. In fact personalization was something people were most likely to experience via off-line channels such as direct mail. A bunch of direct marketing powerhouses had built unbelievable repositories of data that could – albeit clunkily by today’s standards – send semi-targeted offers to households through the mail.
Early pioneers like Yahoo began to understand how compelling personalization could be for Web publishers and in 1996 bought their My Yahoo service to the masses. Yahoo users were now able to customize their Yahoo page to include things such as the weather forecast in the home town, or sports scores of their favorite team. While interesting, the user experience was generally poor. Many users visited multiple sites and in order to make their Web browsing experience truly personal they would need to fill out registration and preference forms on each site. Plus, as an individual’s life situation changes (like moving to a new town for example) they’d need to manually update their preferences to retain the benefits of personalization.
As the 1990s became the 2000s companies like Amazon were able to take the personalization angle one step further. By analyzing a customer’s transactional and browsing history, Amazon was able to build a recommendation engine that would suggest products that customer might be interested in. Amazon did an incredible job (and still does today) of building up an ever evolving profile of its customers. But this was just on one site, not the entire Web.
Which brings us neatly to 2010 and the Social Graph that Facebook has been pioneering. For the first time there seems to be an opportunity for consumers to get and receive highly personal content, without even having to choose. Instead, their behavior and their friends’ behavior will inform the choices – which brings us back to the perfect marriage I spoke about at the beginning of this post.
The road to achieving this goal will certainly not be without obstacles. Privacy concerns abound and many people are horrified by the notion that Facebook (and others) are collecting and using SO much data. There have already been several backlashes around this issue and I’m sure there are more to come.
But ultimately I think 2011 will be the year when some of these concerns – especially among the younger generations – are laid to rest. People are no longer just sharing for fun anymore (although that’s still a huge element of social networking), but they’re sharing because they get something in return. A coupon, a recommendation, an interesting piece of content – the notion of giving something to get something back is old, but more relevant than ever today.
Personalization without friction is a really exciting concept. It acknowledges the fact that people change as they move through life and ensures the content, products, or offers they receive change along with them in a truly seamless fashion. There’s too much content in the world and not enough time. So if somebody can send me reliable, trustworthy, interesting content that is tailored to me in a completely frictionless manner that’s something that will be incredibly useful.