Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

When personalisation goes wrong – and how to get it right

By Annie Maxted, Consultant, Foolproof

People feel frustrated when personalised experiences miss the mark. Excitement surrounds the potential that personalisation can unlock when it comes to delivering relevant and reactive digital experiences. However, you cannot afford to get carried away and lose sight of the ‘people’ (your users) who are having them. 

Implementing personalisation wrong will cost your business money. With that in mind we’ve put together some definitions, examples and principles that will help you along the way to providing better  user experience.

Defining personalisation

Let’s breakdown some definitions before going further…

When we talk about  personalisation, we’re talking about automated, predetermined experiences based on data about you from basic information to recent activity being used to deliver tailored content (of all shapes and forms). Typically, you might find personalised content to be part of your in-app banking experience, or an online booking journey.  

What about customisation and targeted marketing?

Customisation  focuses on user-determined experiences where people create what they want to see themselves. This is delivered based on an individual having been through a process of filtering and curating manually. The results given are determined to be suitable for this individual based on the criteria they selected.  

Targeted marketing  is based on core demographics identified by an organisation for the purpose of selling to them. It makes assumptions about a group of people and what they might like to buy. This often comes in the form of impersonal advertisement based on non-specific user needs.

Jumping the gun

As with most new and exciting experiences, people have all kinds of expectations and have jumped to conclusions about personalisation. 

For any consumer, in any industry, their relationship with a brand is a two-way street: they give and get something in return. From a user’s perspective, they’re providing you with  all kinds of data  about themselves, and in turn, they expect that you’re using it to understand them, their likes and dislikes — hence personalisation.

Yet personalised experiences still miss the mark because the experience delivered often doesn’t match up to the expectations of individual users. Users might ask,

If companies have all this data about me why can’t they use it effectively, in a way which shows they know me?

Attempts to personalise can cripple experiences 

With this in mind, I’ve explored 4 scenarios to illustrate where personalisation can ruin an experience it intended to enhance. 

1. You lost sight of the journey I’ve already been on

Ever since spending a weekend away in Edinburgh all I’ve received is recommendations to visit Edinburgh from the company I booked the trip with. Even though they know I just visited and that I was travelling for leisure — not business.

If the recommendation isn’t Edinburgh, it’s London. The city that I live in…

Personalisation needs to take account of basic details such as the address assigned to my account and offer recommendations based on my history with the company.

2. You made an assumption about me based on a generic demographic I fit into

This is targeted marketing and it’s everywhere, but you’ll often see it dressed up as personalisation. In a world of targeted ads, companies segment audiences to surface supposedly-relevant information to potential customers. Usually, these are based off of sweeping generalisations about people that they can’t relate to meaning they get ignored.

If ‘you’re in the know’ it’s easy to disregard this, and to label it as targeted marketing, but for most people, the difference isn’t apparent and an immediate negative connection with personalisation as a broader theme may be made and a damaging expectation set.

What’s required is a deep consideration of the context that surrounds the product or service you’re offering. A targeted ad I frequently experience is for pregnancy tests. Targeted adverts for them are everywhere because I’m of a certain age and gender.

But take a minute to think of all the different circumstances a woman could be in which would make a suggested advert about pregnancy tests deeply inappropriate and upsetting.  

3. Rather than helping curate, you’ve increased my cognitive load  

Personalisation implies that an experience has been curated for me, therefore in some sense filtered and narrowed down without me knowing, on my behalf. A benefit of this approach is that it can aid decision making as there’s less choice to begin with.

But take a look at your average Netflix homepage. Where to start? It will tell you these programmes have been chosen for you but there’s still a lot of expandable content. As a user how do I distinguish between the programmes that have been chosen specifically for me and generic homepage content?

If the entire Netflix homepage is personalised to an individual then that’s too much information for one person to take in.

4.  From intelligent to creepy

I’m not the only person to have been taken aback during an experience where you’re unsure how a company knows something about you. One example is TV adverts that whilst streaming online use people’s names directly, such as when Coke ran its campaign where you could have your name on a bottle.  

This can also be true when cutting-edge algorithms and technologies deliver insights about ourselves that are such personal and sensitive truths that we have no idea how someone would know that about us. Take information about your health, relationships or sexuality being surfaced.

Four principles for better personalisation

With the above in mind, here are four key principles which can be applied when working on creating personalised experiences:

  • Help inform decision making. Don’t personalise an experience if it’s not impacting or informing better decision making.  
  • Understand me based on my previous behaviour, not on the demographic I fit into. Personalisation is about  me, not everyone around me.
  • Consider the context in which an experience or service is being delivered. This helps you to understand the risks of getting it wrong and the impact that can have on people.
  • Enhance my view including what I see and what I encounter but be mindful of what you’re stopping me from seeing in the process. This isn’t something I’ve touched on in the examples above but consider how many news providers have begun to personalise news content based on what people like to read. What does that mean for all the other things happening in the world that we aren’t reading about but could still be interested in knowing?

Personalisation can improve the experiences people have online. However, you have to be mindful of the implications any attempt to personalise can have on your customers and the experiences they have.

The bottom line is that personalisation is all about understanding your customers. Without a total view of this across all touchpoints you run the risk of switching them off. 


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