I’ve been thinking about this personalisation malarkey a lot recently for a variety of reasons.
You’ve probably noticed that there’s a lot of General Election campaigning going on. I like to keep myself up to speed on these matters, so I can bore my friends on Facebook, but it’s very annoying that I can’t be sure I’m getting to see everything politicians are saying.
That’s because, as you’ll be aware, political parties are using the data scraped from all your online activity to serve you ads that will press your very personal buttons: getting a grammar school in your area; the threats to social care if you have elderly parents; feeding/allaying fears of immigration if you live in a pro-Brexit region.
Some would call this "relevance" in action. I call it sinister, and there’s no point in saying any more than that because Rory Sutherland has already said it rather brilliantly here.
So, let me turn to something I’m supposed to know something about: TV. TV is pre-eminent at building fame and emotional connections for brands, typically starting people on their journey down the purchase funnel. It builds mass reach quickly in a brand-safe context. The importance of reaching the whole potential market for your brand is demonstrated again and again in respected research from the likes of Professor Byron Sharpe and the various IPA Effectiveness studies.
But, in recent years, TV has added the tools of personalisation (via internet-delivered TV services to personal devices) and addressability (via linear broadcasting to TV sets, e.g. Sky AdSmart).
These new functionalities for TV ads have produced some excellent campaigns and allowed many small, localised businesses to enjoy what TV can do for them.
The huge difference between the personalisation that we encounter online compared to TV is that broadcasters are mostly using data freely given rather than derived solely from online behavioural tracking.
Thankfully, no-one thinks that addressable and personalised TV ads are a substitute for more broadly targeted TV campaigns. They just do the job further down the funnel that would otherwise be undertaken by another medium and the opportunities for customisation are exciting. This is not about excluding segments of the population. Imagine how a bank would talk to a household that was already its customer compared to customers of a rival bank.
The BBC is now getting in on the personal data game by launching an app to "bring its services together". Like ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, the BBC is asking people to volunteer their personal data in order to benefit from a wide range of functions such as recommendations based on your tastes, seamless viewing across devices and customised homepages.
The huge difference between the personalisation that we encounter online compared to TV is that broadcasters are mostly using data freely given rather than derived solely from online behavioural tracking, though of course they do track what viewers are using on their own online services.
I appreciate all that this could offer me if I sign up. I would appreciate being reminded when a new series of Fleabag became available, because, without a linear channel to pop it into my consciousness, it’s easy to miss a BBC Three gem.
I expect I’d get loads of prompts for the Proms given my viewing and listening tastes. I don’t actually need those but I imagine someone will then correlate how many people received those emails with who ended up watching the Proms. But that’s just shooting fish in a barrel. I actually want the BBC to persuade people who haven’t listened to or watched the Proms to give them a go.
In fact, rather like Rory’s observations about the importance of politicians making public statements for all to hear, I rather think the BBC, paid for by a universal licence fee, should be rejoicing in the nationwide viewing experiences it creates and promoting everything to everyone, rather than creating too many customised "bubbles".
I might not watch CBeebies or listen to the Asian Network myself, but I help pay for them and I’m jolly pleased to learn that they are there.
It is perfectly possible to use data and personalised messaging to broaden people’s horizons. Last week I received an email from Channel 4 suggesting that I give The Trial a go, despite it not being the sort of programme I normally watch on All4 (viz mainly comedy).
I couldn’t help but smile at some research from Netflix the other day, which stated that their data showed that people liked to "sit down together and watch dramas at 9pm".
I thought this was a brilliant idea – apart from one thing. I had already watched The Trial, via live broadcasts and a couple via playback. That’s the current limitation of the data – it only picks up web and app activity. Given non-internet TV viewing represents about 95% of what is watched at the moment that is a very big hole. It will get smaller, and the platforms like Sky, Virgin and BT can help fill it, but we must be realistic about what data can currently do.
People’s ability to control and personalise their TV viewing will increase, but watching telly remains an intrinsically social pursuit. I couldn’t help but smile at some research from Netflix the other day, which stated that their data showed that people liked to "sit down together and watch dramas at 9pm". (Maybe ITV should investigate the most popular time to broadcast Good Morning Britain.)
People also, apparently, like to watch when other people are watching. They recreate live broadcasts ("let’s all start watching tonight at 8pm") so they can talk about it afterwards on social media. People’s choice of programmes is very often not led by their personal tastes but by the company or context they are in.
However far TV goes down the personalised road I hope it remembers to keep the deal in favour of the public. Personalisation is as good or bad as the intentions behind it. If it’s designed to make the viewer happier and better served, while preserving their privacy and giving them control over their data, that will be fantastic.
If it’s just used to narrow choices, confirm prejudices or to exploit them for the benefit of advertisers and other commercial interests – taking data secretly from anywhere and sharing indiscriminately, exposing viewers to stalking and other forms of abuse – then TV will have messed up royally and would undermine the hard-won trust it has built up over the years.
But the UK broadcasters and TV regulators are good at getting the balance right with new commercial opportunities – witness the unobtrusiveness of product placement and an ad load that makes the US blush.
That's because they know that getting it wrong, annoying or creeping out viewers, means losing viewers. So there is every reason to believe that any personalisation in TV will be very personable. More for you than about you.