Is personalisation tailored to a corporate website’s needs?

Personalisation on corporate sites is not new. But it is currently very fashionable, with software vendors pushing their tailoring technology hard. Should web managers believe the hype? Scott Payton offers five points to consider

Remember: you’re not Netflix
It’s no coincidence that the most costly and complex personalisation techniques have been developed by the giants of online selling, entertainment and social media. This is because personalisation holds much greater potential in these areas – ‘Products recommended for you’, ‘TV shows we think you’ll like’, ‘People you may know’ and so on – than on a ‘standard’ corporate website. 
I’m not saying that personalisation has no role on a corporate site. But – despite the software sales patter – it’s likely to have a relatively limited one.
It’s also important to remember that Amazon and Netflix spend millions of dollars developing bespoke personalisation techniques tailored to their business models. For now, off-the-shelf personalisation tools are in practice far cruder in comparison.  
Another big difference with corporate sites is lack of data to work with. The likes of Amazon, Netflix and Facebook can harvest a steady stream of data from their (frequent, account-holding) users. In contrast, as Bowen Craggs’ Web Analytics Benchmark data shows, the majority of a typical corporate website’s users only visit once or twice a year. 
So the first step in sizing up if and how to personalise your site is to find out which audiences (if any) visit regularly, and focus your efforts on those groups. 
Jobseekers are an exception to this ‘data desert’ problem. By inviting these people to log in to your Careers section via their LinkedIn account, it is possible to tailor vacancy and other information – because LinkedIn gives you access to a ready-made pot of personal data. See this BC Tip on BlackRock’s careers site for an example.
Meanwhile, some web managers are working hard to encourage other audiences to visit their site more regularly. KPMG, for example, now entices visitors to create a user account in return for access to a personalised ‘dashboard’ of articles and other material matching their interests. It’s an unusually sophisticated experiment in corporate site personalisation that will be worth watching during the coming months. 
 
Be transparent
There is an expanding, murky world of ‘hidden’ online marketing personalisation. Indeed, a growing number of companies are personalising marketing banners on their corporate websites – based on the visitor’s cookies or IP address, for example – in ways that are invisible to the user. 
But if you’re going to personalise things like product and article recommendations on your site, it’s best to make it clear to visitors both how you’re personalising information, and the value of this to them. 
This is one aspect of personalisation in which Amazon and co offer relevant lessons for corporate web mangers:
‘Recommended products’ is not nearly as useful a heading as ‘Customers who purchased this item also bought this product’. 
If you tell visitors how and why you’ve personalised information, it gives them the context they need to make the best use of it – as well as conveying an impression of openness and transparency about how and why their personal data is being used. This last point is increasingly important from a reputation management perspective.  
 
Personalisation is no substitute for good navigation
Logical, comprehensive and intuitive navigation menus can be complemented by personalised links – they can’t be replaced by them. Why? 
First, one-off visitors, and those with private browsing mode switched on, simply won’t get your personalised material. 
Second, Bowen Craggs’ website visitor research shows that people come to websites for a myriad of reasons – and often want to visit multiple sections. On a corporate site (rather than, perhaps, a selling site), it’s vital to give these users the opportunity to go on their esoteric, serendipitous journeys as they see fit, rather than to force them down pre-set routes based on what you think they will want.
One more reason not to make your website too reliant on personalisation functionality: doing so could pose a big problem in future if regulators, web browser makers or others change their approaches to use of personal data.
 
Beware of filter bubbles
Related to the above point, overzealous personalisation can be downright counter-productive. Just as personalisation in the world of online news can push people into cultural and political echo chambers, personalisation on a corporate site risks making potentially useful messages and information less visible – or even invisible - to some visitors.
At Bowen Craggs, we’re big fans of related links. But that is partly because they’re a mechanism for ‘cross-selling’ to visitors things or information that they not only didn’t know about, but also didn’t think they wanted to know about. That’s very different from the principle of personalised links, which is to try to second-guess what a visitor might also want. 
Vigorous personalisation can also make users feel robbed of their sense of free will. I have a colleague who is infuriated with a new BBC app because it insists on showing him only radio programmes that it thinks he would like, rather than allowing him to browse the full range of output on offer. 
 
Make sure it’s useful – and not broken
The last two decades are littered with failed attempts to personalise corporate websites. 
In some cases, this was because the personalisation simply didn’t work properly. One corporate site’s Careers section once offered me ‘tailored vacancy information’ that focused on US military veteran postings. I am neither an American nor a military veteran. 
Another site once invited investor relations section visitors to ‘tailor your experience to your needs’. Few visitors wanted to make a ‘tailored experience’: they just wanted to get results data as quickly as possible. 
Yet another site recently experimented with tailoring a product-related primary navigation menu link based on the visitor’s browsing history. It was soon abandoned: it was not made clear to visitors when and why the primary menu changed, increasing confusion rather than convenience. 
Indeed, perhaps the biggest lesson in the history of corporate site personalisation is that bad personalisation is far worse than no personalisation at all. 
 
 - Scott Payton
 
First published 04 December, 2018
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