Don't Let Anybody Kid You, It's All Personal

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It's all personal, every bit of business. - Mario Puzo, The Godfather

2013 has been the year of responsive design, and with good reason. Like many seismic changes on the Web, it was catalyzed by a problem: Readers were moving off the desktop to mobile phones and tablets, and ad dollars were leaving with them.So digital publishers, social platforms and start-ups rushed to create solutions that would deliver a great content and ads experience on any device. But now that the dust has begun to settle on responsive, it's time to revisit the original motive behind this move; creating a more personal content experience for readers.

Don't get me wrong, responsive design has been an absolute necessity and has taken us far, but the pressure to fix a problem shelved an even more powerful opportunity to use data and technology to personalize. Here's an analogy to illustrate my point...

‘Next Please’

Every day I visit the deli next to my office. After 4+ years, the woman at the register continues to greet me (even in the context of a 4pm empty-deli snack run) as "next please," which - despite my exotic looks - is not my name. The only adjustment she has made is to remember I pay by credit card and not cash... responsive to platform, not the individual. There are so many opportunities to personalize... the fact that I don't take a bag, I prefer chopsticks and no soy sauce, or that after 4 years of loyal patronage, dropping the credit card minimum from $8 to $7 could prevent stressful daily negotiations that make me feel like a stranger.

The Opportunity

I’m aiming this plea directly at content publishers as we’ve lost some ground to social platforms and even e-commerce sites which already leverage registration to effectively personalize experiences. To extend the deli metaphor, as publishers we don’t always know who steps up to the counter, so we need to use context clues to do the best with what we’ve got. Here are three readily available reader nuggets dying to be designed against:

Where a reader is coming from... Source data can shed amazing light on who is visiting your site. Are they coming from search, looking for something specific? Are they taking a chance on a friend’s recommendation via social? Are they stumbling in from a content discovery engine waiting to be hooked by a headline?

What mood (mode) are they in when they come to your site... Are they a brand new user exploring your content and site design for the first time, trying to figure if and how they might explore your site? Are they a returning user warming up to your brand but not quite sold? Are they a daily loyalist looking for a bit of surprise and delight?

How are they engaging... How would you treat an actively engaged reader - someone scrolling, sharing, commenting - differently than a passive, drop-on-the-page-and-sleep reader?

The design implications of this data are fascinating. There are millions of ways you might change the landing page experience, site-wide navigation or the way you surface content recommendations. Imagine how a personal welcome message for each user based on the cues above can feel dramatically more intimate than ‘hi visitor number 105,234.’ We’re already experimenting on this with some of our brands, even the simple gesture of tracking what you’ve already read can make a readers experience personal. There’s an incredible opportunity here, and I’m not the only one talking about it.

What’s also appealing about this type of personalization is its potential to shift the data conversation to a benefit instead of an intrusion. By creating a discernable value to the reader, suddenly Big Data can become a trusted friend, not an enemy.

There is a great war being waged on content on the Web - portals, social platforms and visual readers are giving consumers every excuse to circumvent online publications in favor of personalized content aggregation. Moreover, the battles are no longer fought in the name of site traffic, but for true readership. Sure, as publishers we can fight for the scraps of search traffic or play into algorithms in the hopes that "viral traffic" will meet our readership goals, but what we’re really yearning for is loyalty. Because sometimes, all you really want is for someone to recognize your face.

Ed Urgola is Senior Director at Say Media. Follow him on Twitter @edurgola.