In the age of hyper-personalization by the likes of Amazon and Netflix, customized user experiences are now table stakes for digital platforms. Businesses that invest in personalization are rewarded with loyalty and revenue. Those that don’t, get left behind.

But making that investment isn’t a straightforward affair. Many services that pitch themselves as personalization tools don’t even come close to creating a truly customized experience. And today’s savvy web users aren’t fooled:

Where we’ve seen businesses stumble is in substituting personification for true personalization. While personalization involves tailoring content based on direct personal information, personification is based on categories of consumers, not individual people.

Here’s what you need to know about the difference.

Perils of Personification

Gartner defines personification as “the delivery of relevant digital experiences to individuals based on their inferred membership in a defined customer segment, rather than their personal identity.” It’s the digital equivalent of calling someone “buddy” or “champ” because you can’t remember their name. I know that I know you, but I don’t know who you are.

Personification tools can track user behavior and use AI to place users into, say, one of several marketing personas you’ve developed. But in terms of driving meaningful, personalized interactions with users, personification falls down.

Here are a few critical issues with commonly used personification tools:

User Session Data

Information about a user’s interactions with an application is stored temporarily on the application’s server, not the browser.

EXAMPLE: During this session, I see that you’ve visited a piece of content that falls in a specific category. For the rest of your session, I can serve up other content tagged with the same category (often in Featured, Related, or You May Also Like sections).

PROBLEM 1: As soon as the browser session is closed, the user data is lost.

PROBLEM 2: The moment you switch from one device (e.g. mobile) to another (e.g. tablet) you lose all session data.

Contextual Data

Marketing automation or location intelligence software can use AI to gather environmental data about a user to deliver customized content or services.

EXAMPLE: I see that you’re in Los Angeles, California. Knowing your local weather, time zone, and other regional attributes, I can tailor the content you see to be more specific to your area.

PROBLEM: I have to ask you first if I can track your location, and you might say no.

First Party Cookie Data

By storing information about a user’s behavior directly on a domain, site owners can collect analytics data and remember language settings, among other functions.

EXAMPLE: Last time you visited my website, you commented on a certain piece of content. I may even have asked, “Do you want to see more of this type of content?” Now that you’re back, I can serve up newly published content of the same type. I can even feature it right on the homepage.

PROBLEM 1: I need to ask you if I can use cookies with you, and you can say no.

PROBLEM 2: If you clear the cookies in your browser, I’ll lose that valuable data.

PROBLEM 3: Another family member is using the same application on the same device, and now I’m getting mixed signals. This is completely messing with my AI.

Bottom line: personification is not really personalization. Even worse, you may lose your data and have to start from square one. To deliver true personalization, you need first-party data from authenticated users. Instead of guessing who your customer is, get to know who they really are.

Next-Level Personalization

True personalization is difficult to achieve outside of a digital platform, where people register as users (versus just casually visiting a website). Once someone becomes an authenticated user, it’s easier to learn a number of things about them.

83% of consumers are willing to share their data to enable personalized experiences. Platform users in particular are more open to providing personal information, because they’re specifically looking for a customized experience. With that first-party data, you can track preferences and interactions to improve the user experience. And you’re not going to lose the historical data when a user closes a session or clears their cookies.

Here are some key benefits:

Looking for Middle Ground?

In the end, you’ll deliver the best personalization (and earn the most engagement) by building an interactive platform and leveraging first-party data. But what if you have a decent website, and you’re not ready to shift to a platform?

You could approach it as a testing ground for personalization instead. By creating a series of micro-interactions using personification tools, you can test whether your users actually want a personalized experience, and if so, what they want to personalize.

Let’s say you’re a news outlet. You could just let people come and read your content online. At the next level, you can try to guess who they are through personification (via cookie requests, location prompts, etc.). If users are interacting with your prompts, it’s likely they’re interested in having a personalized experience.

Finally, you could build a platform for registered users and offer true personalization. You’ll not only deliver a better user experience, you’ll increase engagement and return visits — not to mention sales and other revenue.

At whatever level you can, go the extra mile and give your users what they want. We’re happy to help! Contact us today to learn more.