Tim_walters By Tim Walters, Ph.D.

The title of this blog entry was supposed to be “Who’s Afraid Of Personalization?” In the course of research for an upcoming report on the state of, and support for, personalization on non-eCommerce Web sites, I often felt that the answer is “Just about everyone.” Forrester Research Associate Keith Tsang and I encountered a few exemplary cases of personalized sites in media, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and even a U.S. government agency. (I’ll tell you later why I’m being coy about naming them.) But the fact is that most enterprises still take a one-size-fits-all approach to the Web channel – thus ensuring that their sites will be really relevant and engaging for almost no one.

Still, we also heard universal and unanimous acknowledgment of the benefits of providing personalized visitor experiences with selective or targeted delivery of Web content. Everybody agrees that they should be doing it; many want to do it; a good number are investing significant time and resources in planning to do it; and we heard from both vendors and users that organizations are increasingly buying the tools to allow them to do it. So why the yawning abyss between conviction and execution? Why the fear and trembling in the face of the great good supposedly offered by personalization? We venture some diagnoses in the report, and offer recommendations on (gently) kick-starting your personalization efforts. (Tentatively titled “To Succeed With Web Content Personalization, Start Failing Now,” the report should be published by the end of the month.)

But last week, during an interview for a report on multilingual content management, I heard a new reason for resisting the charms of personalization. (I’ve developed a nasty habit of raising questions about personalization regardless of the putative reason for the conversation. Should we ever share a long elevator ride, be prepared.) To paraphrase my interlocutor: It’s the economy, stupid. The trouble with a trial and error approach to personalization is that it harbors the possibility (and probably guarantees the occurrence) of error – and error is an expense that, at this juncture, we’d best avoid. For now, let’s stick with what we know works, and we’ll indulge in experimentation when our corporate head is back above the surface of the water.

This is an eminently reasonable argument. And it might well be the smartest approach to dealing with Web channel customer engagement during an economic downturn. The question is reminiscent of the old debate over whether one should decrease or increase advertising spending during a recession. The proponents of increasing spending implicitly rely upon the historical fact that (so far) the downturn always ends. And when it ends, you want to be in a position to immediately seize market share and competitive advantage.

Survival during the downturn + Ability to thrive afterwards = Thurvivial

(Based on a few minutes of Web research, I’m going to make the bold etymological assertion that “thurvival” was first coined by Daffy Duck in “Rabbit Fire” from 1951 – the third best Bugs Bunny cartoon of all time.)

The difference between the old advertising argument and the question of investing in personalization today is the difference between the one-way, brand building effects of traditional advertising and the challenge of communicating with today’s sophisticated, empowered online consumer. The current financial crisis will certainly have many unpleasant effects, but it’s very unlikely that it will somehow make consumers less demanding, less fickle, and less likely to favor Web sites that, as my colleagues in Marketing and Strategy say, are not only usable but desirable.  On the contrary, Psychology 101 suggests that consumers will become even more invested in Web experiences that are engaging, relevant, entertaining, and that allow them to accomplish their goals without (additional) frustration. Don’t expect them to sympathize with a decision to delay improvements to the Web channel.

None of this suggests that it’s a good idea to launch a complicated cross-channel personalization initiative – we don’t advise the boil the ocean approach even in the best economic climate. But the counter to the “sure and steady” approach to the crisis would be the view that now is the time to make selective, small scale investments in personalization tools and skills. Yes, your experiments will produce errors, and the effect will probably not be as favorable as your “sure bets.” But in addition to whatever financial benefits you achieve, you’re building up a knowledge base, intellectual capital, and competitive advantages that will be extremely valuable later. (Preserving these non-financial benefits is the reason that the companies we interviewed about their advanced personalization projects want to remain anonymous.) 

This raises a carrot-patch full of questions, and naturally I’d love to have your input on all of them:
–    What are your plans (or current projects) for Web site personalization?
–    Or, what were your plans – are projects going to be delayed in light of the downturn?
–    What is your approach to the online channel for the short term: Stick with what you know, or experiment for future advantage?
–    What are the low (or no) cost ways in which you can try to meet consumer demand for engaging and relevant Web experiences? Such as: Launch some personalized micro- or niche sites with a low cost WCM product, rather than replacing your entire aged enterprise system? Add a hosted, pay-for-benefit recommendation engine? Engage consumers with social computing? What are your other ideas?
–    “Thurvival” as a concept – Keep it or toss it?

Please leave your comments here or write to me at twalters@forrester.com.