Online gets personal

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For brands toying with online personalisation strategies new research shows there’s an increased appetite for this content, however privacy concerns still exist.

Consumers are craving more personalised online content, according to new research from Yahoo, but this comes with several caveats around control and privacy.

The study of 6,000 people aged from 13 to 64 finds that awareness of online personalisation activity is high and respondents believe the practice brings relevance and efficiency to their reading or experience of content.

Almost 60 per cent of consumers are aware that personalisation is applied to written material online, while two-thirds understand that it also affects what they watch and listen to.

The appetite for relevant content is high with 78 per cent of consumers expressing a desire for some kind of personalisation. However, more than 60 per cent of respondents would like to know why and how websites select the content that they personalise.

What people want from personalised content

Lauren Weinberg, vice-president of global research and insight at Yahoo, says: “It is all about striking the right balance in consumer control and personalised experiences. Consumers really understand that when they put in those preferences and share with publishers or brands, it makes their experience much better.”

Despite the appetite for personalised content, nearly two-thirds of respondents would like the option of privacy controls. Just over half (58 per cent) want personalisation based only on user information that they proactively provide.

Basis of activity

Percentages of consumers happy aboiut marketers using online behaviour

As a basis for personalisation, consumers seem comfortable with sites collecting basic demographic details (46 per cent), information on topical and personal interests (48 per cent) and the preferences expressed when users ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ stories they have read (54 per cent).

Shop Direct, which includes retail sites such as and, approaches personalisation through a specific focus.

Retail director Jon Owen says: “Personalisation of websites is a huge topic and can mean lots of different things, so we split it into more manageable chunks.

“For example, we’re seeing significant customer value in personalising search results and emails, so those are the areas that we are focusing on right now.

“We’ve honed our approach over time and focus on constantly challenging ourselves to ensure what we’re doing is genuinely improving the customer experience.”

Very furniture finds using personalisation in emails and search works well, but ‘broadcast’ is better for major brand campaigns

However, Owen says there must be limits to personalisation, particularly in retail. “We’ve landed a number of early personalisation initiatives that have massively exceeded our expectations for incremental sales, but there are limits to what you can personalise.”

He believes brands can select appropriate offers and products to feature in personalised emails, but says activities such as launching a new product range or a major brand campaign are likely to remain broadcast, “at least in the near term”.

Consumer mood

New look models
New Look’s research found that consumer interest in personalisation depends partly on the category of the content.

New Look approached the personalisation of online content with the launch of its Colour & Mood guide. Working with digital marketing agency Forward3D and using market research and social and online engagement, the brand discovered that consumers searched for content based not only on colour choice and occasion but on how the items made them feel.

The research finds that consumer interest in personalisation depends partly on the category of the content. Entertainment scores highest with 60 per cent of people saying personalisation improves the content. Next comes lifestyle, followed by sport, news, automotive and finance.

Equally important is the ability to gain consumer trust, with respondents appreciating adverts that create an open and reliable digital experience. Forty-two per cent of consumers want publishers to work with brands that “make it safe to click” while 35 per cent say they prefer receiving ads from trusted companies.

Balancing act

Percentage of relevant ads seen on computers

Despite a positive consumer response to personalisation, respondents believe it should have some restrictions. Almost a third of consumers do not want websites to have too much personal information, saying they are unsure whether it would help to deliver the promised targeted experience.

Hence brands must try to achieve a balancing act, offsetting personalised content (tailored to the wishes of ‘me’) with broader content also seen by others (the wishes of ‘we’). The latter is driven by fear of missing out – known by consumers as FOMO – with 40 per cent of people saying they do not want to miss content that other people can see.

Yahoo’s Weinberg says: “The ‘we’ part is the idea of consumers not wanting things to be personalised to a degree that they start to miss out on other things that are happening.

“It’s about striking the right balance in giving consumers what they want but not narrowing their world so that they start to miss out on things that are important to them.”

Percentage of relevant ads seen on smartphones

Yahoo has devised three rules for achieving best practice in online personalisation (see box below) and Weinberg believes the industry could be a lot smarter, particularly over retargeted ads.

“One of the things consumers talk about a lot is that after you make a purchase, that same product follows you online via adverts,” she says. “We can get a little smarter about knowing that the purchase has been made and thinking ‘How do we follow up with an experience?’

“Seeing a sponsored ad should be more of a surprise and a delight moment, where people feel like the ad is really tailored to them rather than it being for something they have already purchased.”

But many consumers express a liking for personalised advertising. Over half (54 per cent) find it more engaging than general ads, 52 per cent say it is educational and 45 per cent find such content memorable.

Percentage of ads seen on internet on smartphones that are relevant

Encouraging interaction

Personalised ads can also prompt consumers to become more involved with the brand. About 50 per cent of respondents say they would be more likely to interact with these types of ad than with more general communications.

Yahoo’s research clearly highlights the value for brands in personalising online content. But it is important to analyse consumers’ comfort levels and calculate the appropriate amount of personalisation for each sector and audience.

Marketers’ response

Jon Owen

John  Owen

Retail director, Shop Direct

The research supports our view from talking to customers that, despite concerns over privacy and user control, generally shoppers have a desire for easier, more personalised experiences. The challenge is ensuring they can clearly see the benefits to their experience, ease and engagement in letting us use their data this way.

Customers are clear that they don’t want personalisation for the sake of it. We have a team that focuses on quick, tactical wins and we have a long-term, strategic investment programme.

True on-site personalisation has the potential to be a game changer, but the costs of creating genuinely different experiences for different customers are high, so not everyone will be able to achieve it.

Steve Cook

Steve Cook

Ecommerce content manager, New Look

Personalised content is a big focus for us and we have only just skimmed the surface. We know it’s important and have had a lot of good feedback and take-up from it.

Recently we have personalised our weekly customer emails depending on customer type and spend. We send them to VIP and higher-spend customers.

There is also a product focus because we have Inspire, our plus-size range, as well as tall and petite, and we segment to specific customers. If you have bought in those areas before, you will receive specific content.

We personalise to menswear as well, and to female customers who buy menswear. We also have a personalised Inspire homepage.

Yahoo’s three ‘musts’ of personalised advertising

Know me:

People want content that target ‘what I like’ and ‘who I am’

Speak my language: 

Make your ads sound like a trusted brand

Value my time:

People want better ads with more useful information


Yahoo partnered with Ipsos MediaCT to survey 6,000 respondents aged 13 to 64 – a representative sample of the US online population – about online content and advertising personalisation. Yahoo also conducted 24 in-depth interviews with adults and teens to gain insight into user perceptions of ad personalisation.

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