You’ll hear the word ‘personalization’ from us a lot. It is, in a word, what we do at Boomtrain. The thing is, you’ll hear it from a lot of other people too. The fact that personalizing user experiences, whether on websites, in emails, or at a hotel, makes for better user experiences is one of the great “no duh” statements in the world of marketing.

The thing is, most examples of “personalization” are not really “personal” at all.

I keep picturing Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride… after hearing the diminutive Sicilian Vizzini repeatedly use the word “inconceivable,” he finally turns to him and says, “You keep-a using that a-word… I do not think it means what you a-think it means.”

So here’s what we at Boomtrain do—and do not—mean when we say personalization:

Name Dropping is not personalization

Dear [William Smith],
I am delighted to inform you about these new videos that are available to special customers like you…
Shana, Director of Customer Happiness at VideoCo

This is like throwing darts blindfolded but pretending you can see. Automatically populating his name, or even some of the basic info he provided when he registered might give you an incremental boost in clicks, but it’s not really going to make old Bill feel “special.” In fact, this robotic attempt at human intimacy might even cross into the uncanny—and unpleasant—valley.

Segmentation is not personalization

This is where you target specific content to people who are more likely to be interested in it based on data, such as their stated preferences, demographics, or past behavior.

[because you are an 18-25 year old male, living in the Bay Area, who watched Die Hard last month]
Here are some new videos that we think you might like:
                              Die Hard 2
                             Die Hard with a Vengeance
Shana at VideoCo

Getting warmer. At least you’re making use of the data you have to create more personal communications, but you’re still treating Bill like a member of a homogeneous group and making assumptions about him based on characteristics you have attributed to that group. You’re still throwing darts blindfolded, but you’re standing closer to the board.

Personalization is actually, personal

[We’ve aggregated all the data we have on you—preferences, behavior, demographics—and used smart algorithms to create a nuanced and evolving picture of you. Then we aggregated all the data we have on our content—who watches it, what else they watch, how popular it is. We analyzed all that data to make the most accurate prediction we can about what content is likely to engage you, as a unique, singular human.]
Here are some videos we thought you might really enjoy:
                               [unique selection of videos Bill is most likely to watch]
Shana at VideoCo

Now the blindfold is off. We can see exactly who we’re trying to reach with this message. Bill knows he’s being marketed to, but if we consistently deliver content to him that he enjoys, he’ll start to see our notifications as valuable info about new videos rather than nagging reminders.

Extra Credit: Real-time Personalization

The problem with most analytics is that they’re retroactive. The Bill you knew last month is not the same as the Bill you’re interested in reaching right now. What if we could ingest and use data immediately? What if we could customize content for Bill based on the article he just tweeted, or the new video that was just published, or the topic that’s trending right this second?

If we were able to access that information and act on it in the moment, we could send Bill an email, personalized with content he’s most likely to be interested in right this second. We could even customize that email or push notification with content he’s most likely to share, or [insert desired KPI here] right this second.

What if we could do that for each and every customer? To completely exhaust this metaphor, we still have to throw the dart and hope it sticks, but we’ve essentially turned the whole board into a bullseye.

Real time personalization at scale is Boomtrain’s reason for being. We’re under no illusion that every customer will open every email, but the promise of personalization is much more than just an incremental bump in engagement metrics, it’s redefined customer relationships. Why waste bandwidth on content that’s likely to be ignored, when you can send every customer content that’s likely to engage them right now?

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