Google, Bing, and other search engines tailor results to reflect our social influences, our past interests, and even the devices we're on. Facebook prioritizes newsfeed content based on our past engagement. The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and other major media channels all provide recommended content for users. And a recent eConsultancy study found that 52% of digital marketers agree that "the ability to personalize content is fundamental to their online strategy."
This evolution begs the question: How does all of this personalization change our experience as consumers and our strategies as marketers?
Some welcome a more personalized web in which irrelevant noise begins to fall away from our line of sight. Others worry that personalization will lead to a narrower perspective and trap content consumers in a limited "filter bubble."
Benefit or limit, the personalization of the web makes for a fascinating discussion in which marketers and content consumers alike should engage.
Let's begin with the concerns.
What is a filter bubble?
Activist and author Eli Pariser popularized the concept of the filter bubble in 2011, with the release of his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You and corresponding TED Talk. A filter bubble, as defined by Pariser, is the uniquely tailored universe of information that individuals see online due to personalized search results.
In recent years, because of algorithm changes and more readily available social information, search results on Google and other search engines have been increasingly influenced by individual searchers' social networks and past content affinities.
This social influence on search results can be effective at predicting what content you'll find most relevant or interesting. However, it can also restrict the diversity of content within easy reach and arguably limit the information needed to make well-rounded decisions.
In other words, by its very nature, the act of personalizing necessarily promotes some content while excluding other content from view.
Pariser found himself shielded from certain types of content.
Pariser, for example, first discovered the filter bubble when he realized content from his politically conservative friends was appearing less frequently in his Facebook news feed. He argues that this kind of tailored internet can lead to a dangerously narrow view of the world.
"When personalization affects not just what you buy but how you think, different issues arise," explained Pariser in a New York Times editorial. "Democracy depends on the citizen’s ability to engage with multiple viewpoint; the internet limits such engagement when it offers up only information that reflects your already established point of view. While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t."
While Pariser's early work focused on search engines and tailored news feeds, technology over the past two years has developed far enough to enable more advanced personalization within individual business websites, including the HubSpot Content Optimization System.
The filter bubble Pariser is concerned about predominately relates to searches that shape our worldview or political decisions. However, it does raise interesting questions about the best way to use personalization for inbound marketing and our content strategies.
Are you reading to expand or reading for efficiency?
Before diving into our marketing strategies, let's examine this as content consumers -- because the filter bubble affects us in both ways.
As content creators, we are, by nature, also scholars. We research. We read. We have a steady stream of carefully calibrated RSS feeds pointed in our direction at any given moment. And we do so because, to create useful content, you have to be consistently expanding your knowledge and making connections among new points of information.
We are also, however, absurdly busy. We need to move through information quickly, digest it, weigh its value, and move to next steps.
This is where personalization comes in handy.
Personalized searches and content help to strip out irrelevant material and get to the heart of a question more quickly. If you are mid-blog and looking for something specific to support your point, for instance, getting to the most notable and well-known content on that topic quickly is of serious import. That's a very different use case than when you're searching or reading to learn.
So, whenever you are consuming content, there's a moment when you should be very intentional and ask yourself: Am I reading to expand my knowledge or reading for efficiency?
There is a time and a place for both. Ideally, you should be doing both every day. If you have a sense of what you want and need to get to the heart of it very quickly, tailored searches and personalized content make all the sense in the world. If you are trying to learn about a new topic or expand your perspective, you ought to take the time to clear your cookies, use an incognito browser, or ask questions in circles outside of your own.
Provide personalization that aids rather than inhibits.
As content creators, we have a role to play in this too. When you use personalization in marketing, think about the experience you're creating for the viewer or reader. Are you using personalization for the sake of it? Or, are you benefiting the end-recipient in some way? Are you blocking them unnecessarily or helping them find what they need more quickly?
Make sure personalization is useful and not gimmicky.
In August, we introduced the newest version of our inbound marketing platform. We were excited about it and wanted to give it the featured spot on our homepage. But we knew that the message for existing customers learning about the new platform would have to be very different from the standard marketing message for the larger world.
Existing customers wouldn't want a demo or a trial of the platform. They'd want to know things like when they can start to use it or whether it would cost them any more (the answer to that is no). We created the personalized homepage below to give our customers information specific to their unique needs and questions. Instead of directing them to a conversion page, we used smart CTAs to direct them to an internal resource center where they could learn more about their specific accounts.
While we did do things like use personalization tokens to include their name in the homepage copy, we made sure that the content reflected where they are in the customer life cycle.
A recent survey by Janrain & Harris Interactive found that nearly three-fourths (74%) of online consumers are frustrated with websites when content (e.g. offers, ads, promotions) appears that has nothing to do with their interests. When done with the end-user in mind, personalization on-site can help to alleviate some of this tension and get people to the content that speaks to their needs.
If you're providing personalized content suggestions, alert the viewer to it.
Much of Pariser's concern with the filter bubble is that this narrowing of results was happening without users' knowledge or awareness. This is particularly pertinent when you're making content recommendations and prioritizing some articles or pieces of content over others.
Amazon is the paramount example when it comes to personalized content. They were one of the earliest examples. When it comes to informing viewers as to why and how they are personalizing content, they are one of the most adept.
Here's a look into my personal Amazon recommendations.
Amazon does a nice job of showing that this section is personalized content. They separate it out from the rest of the page and allow the viewer to click to see what triggered the recommendation. When I do so, they show me the previous purchase that led to this recommendation and allow me to opt to not include that purchase as a trigger for future recommendations.
I'm in love with this type of feature, and, according to Janrain's 2013 study, I'm not the only one:
- 57% of online consumers are comfortable providing personal information on a website as long as it’s for their benefit and being used in responsible ways.
- 77% would trust businesses more if they explained how they’re using personal information to improve their online experience.
Allowing customer control and helping them understand when and how personalization is being used can create a better consumer experience and increase the overall accuracy and effectiveness of your personalization strategy.
The filter bubble debate is one that asks us to mark our space between two extremes: an online world determined exclusively by algorithmic personalization and one in which we have to dig through endless noise just to find the signal. The best way forward, as usual, will be found in the grey areas.
Personalization in marketing and content creation requires skill, nuance, and good intention. Moving forward, we'll need talented marketers to unearth best practices. The marketers, engineers, and content creators of today will, together, need to build a framework for personalization that creates a better, more human experience for all.
What do you think? Is increasing personalization of search results, news feeds and other forms of online content good or bad for marketers and consumers?
Image credit: Ali T