The Elegance of Personalization

June 26, 2019 | Matthew Parker

Among the thorniest problems posed by mass marketing and economic modernity — at least from the vantage of marketers themselves — is overchoice.

In short: People have a difficult time making a selection when they’re presented with an abundance of options.

In less short: People like options in the abstract. And, given a choice between many options and fewer options, reliably opt for more. But – and this is where it gets thorny – once they’re in a high-option environment, often fail to make a choice. 

In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Lyengar describes a study wherein consumers had to choose between two tables selling jam. The first table displayed six different jams. The second displayed 24.

60 percent of people stopped at the larger table and 40 percent chose to shop at the smaller table. So, an early win for variety. But, when the time came to actually make a purchase, only three percent of the visitors to the big table did so. Meanwhile, 30 percent of the shoppers at the small table made a purchase.

It’s a tidy illustration of the tension that consumers – as well as the brands and marketers architecting their choices – face: People like options, and the promise of products that fit them. But the optionality that gets them in the door ultimately repels them when it’s time to make a purchase.

Personalization, at bedrock, is the most efficient way to thread this needle. Whether through a digital experience, or, increasingly, bespoke products and services, it enables a mass consumer artifact to be customized to an individual. The days of parsing 100 mustard varieties at the supermarket are gone. We’re in the era of your mustard, selected just for you based on purchase history, the results of a brief survey you took, and some other secret data sauce, and delivered right to your door. It preserves the wealth of options, but eliminates the burden of choice – or at least transfers it from the customer to the brand.

During a period of, to put it mildly, bad press for personalization, it’s useful to remember this fundamental usefulness. Our customers certainly do.

According to Deloitte, 22 percent of consumers are willing to share data in exchange for a more personalized product or service. At first blush, this isn’t a particularly high number. It means 78 percent of customers are either unwilling or unsure. But set against a backdrop of headlines like this, this, and this, it looks terrific. And when you layer in that 20 percent of customers with an interest in personalized products and services are willing to pay a premium to receive them, the public’s satisfaction with personalization looks almost miraculous.

There is ample room for improvement, but personalization, as a practice, is sound. It’s lucrative for brands, it benefits customers, and it’s the simplest way to execute a fundamental economic function – present customers with options, while steering them toward the right one.

What personalization has is a marketing problem. It’s the sort of problem, you’d hope, our industry would be well-equipped to solve.