Why don't websites speak?

In the future, everyone who has an online story to tell will be able to tune their message to their audience.

Musings on personalization and contextualization

Let me start getting personal about personalization by going back to 2012. That year, a serious sports accident hit me with a cerebral infarction, commonly known as a stroke. I had to learn how to speak again, which was incredibly difficult. My life as a start-up founder also suffered. With a limited vocabulary, it was nearly impossible to captivate people in conversations or sales pitches like I used to.

When I spoke about this with friends in the tech scene, they joked that I acted like any old website: always telling the same story, regardless of who’s watching. I noticed then how important it is to change the way you talk to different kinds of people. It’s 2018 now and I’ve had time to recover. I’m happy to say that the internet is getting better at talking to different people too, as the big online trend this year is personalization - or rather contextualization.

Personalization

Websites are pretty inefficient. On average, only 2% of visitors convert. That’s certainly not a number to be proud of - the truth is, people still have a greater power to persuade. A good sales rep is typically responsible for bringing in a bigger share of prospects to your business and this largely because they adjust their pitch according to the audience. Personalization can do the same, but for websites.

Website personalization allows you to show different things to different people. With it, you can optimize pages for each individual, in order to be as relevant as possible. Website personalization can help you convert a lot more visitors into customers, so it’s only natural that it’s gaining popularity. But why now?

A/B tests fail often

A/B testing has been popular for about 10 years. In an A/B test, you compare multiple versions of a web page, in order to ultimately find and keep the best variation. But there’s a problem with this approach. It only works reliably for websites with a very large amount of visitors.

There’s another catch: the best performing variation is actually the least bad - after all, everyone is different, so that same variation can’t be the best for everyone. Almost all vendors who offered some kind of A/B testing software, like Optimizely, VWO and Google Optimize, are now putting the bulk of their focus on personalization. And they’re not alone.

New startups

Infrastructure costs have gone down significantly, thanks to the evolution of cloud computing. It’s easier and cheaper than ever before to build a scalable and reliable platform. This has left room for competition in the personalization arena, and smaller providers like Evergage, Nosto and my own startup, Unless, are now stepping up their game. These startups are bringing new solutions to the market at a high pace. Contextualization is one of those solutions.

Contextualization

Until recently, personalization was mainly used for preferences, product suggestions and dynamic pricing. With contextualization, it’s not about what you say, but how you package that message. Choice of words, images, examples and social proof are tweaked to appeal to the background of each unique visitor. This can go as far as showing different versions of the page to people based on their educational level, their mood or even the weather.

This approach is particularly successful for websites that communicate about innovative or complex topics. The harder it is for people to understand something, the faster they bounce off a page. Appealing to personal context makes sense, as it prolongs their attention span.

At this point, you’re probably wondering...will the software break my wallet? No, it’s actually pretty cheap! A complex technical implementation or integration is often not necessary, as there are no complex pricing databases involved. It’s like installing a plugin. Like any other SaaS solution, complex technological aspects are handled by the provider. And this technology is only getting better, and more advanced.

What you can expect in the near future

At the moment, personalization still requires that you’ve versed in specific knowledge, for example how to properly identify your target groups. But that may not be the case in a year or two. What’s coming?

  • With Machine Learning, it will be possible to map and target different groups of people automatically using pattern recognition.
  • Natural Language Processing will enable you to generate different content bits based on the original text and the properties of each target group.
  • Artificial Intelligence will determine the right mix for each visitor and then select only the best text snippets for re-use.

In other words, your website will become a self-learning system which becomes better at addressing individual visitors automatically. This technology is used in chatbots and virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant - and you can benefit from it, too. All you need is a good website, a bit of patience and, of course, visitors.

What about privacy?

There’s no getting around it: you need data to do personalization, so naturally privacy comes to the fore. Oddly enough, new privacy laws like GDPR have actually made it easier to do it right, by highlighting the need for transparency and compelling business owners to understand what kinds of data they collect and how they use it.

Personalization falls under profiling in Europe’s new Data Protection law. Profiling stands for analyzing personal data, and then using the result in a way that influences the user experience of the visitor. You can make use of profiling, but you need to have a legal reason to do it, or ask for permission.

So will websites be creepy?

Personalization is going to drastically change the web. Don’t be surprised if websites start talking like they know you in the next few years. There will come a time when websites will behave more like people, and perhaps that’ll be creepy at the beginning. Business owners will have to use these new technologies responsibly. The key is to focus on context - don’t use personalization for its own sake, but do it to make yourself easier to understand and make your visitor’s experience compelling.

I know from experience that it makes a big difference if you’re able to tune your story to your audience. In the future, everyone who has an online story to tell will be able to benefit from this. Visitors will find what they need faster, and business owners will profit from greater conversions - and a lot of impressed visitors.