Personalisation must focus on the meaning rather than the method
A view from Emil Bielski

Personalisation must focus on the meaning rather than the method

We rely on personalisation and algorithms but we need to remember who we are actually targeting and design for real people.

I have a sense that the language of marketers is becoming increasingly distant from the public’s perceptions of advertising. Where we in the industry see a PPC (pay per click) listing or a local ad, people see a search result. Where we see a disruptive pre-roll, they see an annoyance. Yet, trapped in our echo chambers, we sometimes struggle to step back and see the wood for the trees.

Our work suffers because of it. Trust in advertising is down to record lows. According to our latest Future Focus research, increasing consumer trust in brands is the marketing community’s top priority in 2020. But can we really build trust if we think of targeting opportunities rather than people? 

"CRM, paid media, on-site and personalisation, brought together with algorithms to power a seamless experience" is a line I may have uttered once or twice. But is seamless necessarily good? And what is that experience that we want to give them, and why? 

Intrinsically, "experience" is a completely weightless noun, bereft of heft and deeper meaning. Perhaps it is because of this weightlessness that it floats off the tongue so easily. We are in February, but I want to make a late New Year’s resolution. I will make an oath that from today I will only design for people, not for plans. 

It won’t be easy – humans look for patterns. We like to simplify problems, and relying on algorithms, automation or personalisation for its own sake is the current method to out-source harder thinking. Designing for plans has become heuristic; we subconsciously overlay these mental models from moment of briefing to delivery, so the plan often comes before uncovering the real problem.

That’s why I have created my own seven-step programme to remind me about the primacy of humans in everything that we do.

  1. Find your passion – Forget brewing craft beer or setting up a gourmet chocolate stand; discover what you love about your client’s product. Taste it, smell it, experience the service. If you don’t care, why should anyone else?
  2. Be more kid – Don’t draw with crayons on the wall (unless that’s part of your process) but do question "why?" at every turn. Briefs can go through so many hands that their original intent is lost. Intelligent naivety is the order of the day.
  3. Uncover what matters – Who cares that your core audience is a 23-year-old coffee shop worker in Woking? It matters that a custom pair of Air Max represents to them a connection to a global culture that transcends demographic pigeon-holing.
  4. Don’t be a creep – What’s the right level of personalisation for your audience? Younger generations embrace it and your aunt is going to be more wary, but whenever you do it, it must be seen as value-adding rather than intrusive. 
  5. Love your partner – Your media partner (obviously). Be an expert on the platforms and publications and help craft brilliant media activations with which people want to spend time, rather than the digital equivalent of the insert that pollutes your doormat.
  6. Unleash the specialists – There is such a wealth of data and insight that sits across all our specialisms. Keyword research is the unfiltered quantification of the collective intent of all people, but we still prefer quant-based analysis, with all its flaws. Old habits die hard…
  7. Experience it – See it all together, search, visit, click, shop, read, sign up. How did the activity make you feel? Think about all the pieces, even the ones outside of your direct control.

It may seem strange that this point of view is coming from the chief strategy officer of iProspect, a digital performance agency. We make sure that these tools remain the method rather than the meaning of what we do. With access to a far greater range of behavioural insight than has ever been available before, we all have the capability to design for people, but sometimes need a reminder that "a plan" is not the end goal. 

Emil Bielski is chief strategy officer at iProspect UK

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