Personalization Is Not A Feature

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Editor’s note: Scott Brave is the CTO and co-founder, Baynote.

We’ve all watched from the sidelines as companies have come out in a burst of glory, and then, two years later, spent their venture capital, lost their user base, and failed to monetize. This begs the question – what are the factors that drive a company’s survival, differentiate it, and ultimately make it a winner? In today’s online world, personalization is increasingly making or breaking companies. The companies that win are the ones making personalization a key company value – not just a feature.

In the early days of the web, consumers were happy just to gain access to information. However, as technology became more sophisticated, and as more consumers and companies came online, we quickly moved out of the access age and into a state of information overload, often leaving consumers frustrated and confused. Companies that helped consumers cut through the clutter to reveal relevant information had a critical and sustainable competitive advantage in their respective areas. The concept of relevance is critical to the success of Google, for example.

Personalization is not new. Popularized by Amazon and Netflix more than a decade ago, personalization is the practice of tailoring information to people based on what they are looking for, what they have found interesting in the past, what their friends have engaged with, or based on explicit inputs like their interests. Personalization has gotten a lot of positive attention recently because it can be used to great effect to organize the web’s information overflow into relevant, meaningful experiences.

Winning companies approach personalization as a core value of how they do business – a “customer-centric” philosophy – rather than an add-on “feature.” As proof, here are some examples of companies that have built their businesses around personalization and the competition that they left in their wake.

News: Flipboard vs. Yahoo! News

In 2001, Yahoo! launched Yahoo! News, providing a repository for news articles that became the first-ever most-emailed page on the web. However, Yahoo! News neglected to treat personalization as a core value – and in so doing missed out on the opportunity to tap into the social graph of personal information to personalize and curate content for users based on their interests. With Yahoo! treating personalization as a feature and not a core value, by 2010, consumers moved on to new, more personalized content curation services that were specifically designed for consuming media. One example of such a personalized news source is Flipboard, which works across Apple devices, and allows users to “flip” through their social networking feeds and feeds from partner websites to find the news articles that are most interesting to them.

Within a year of its founding, Flipboard had amassed a $200 million valuation. Today, the company’s valuation and user base continues to skyrocket, while Yahoo!’s continues to hemorrhage. Flipboard won because it applied personalization to consumer choice for news articles that other news providers hadn’t accounted for, sparking the beginning of the content curation boom. Interestingly, Yahoo! recently announced plans to eliminate many of its online properties in order to focus on its most popular ones and make the content on those sites personalized to the user. It seems Yahoo! has finally caught on to the fact that users like personalized content and will engage with brands and services that provide content tailored to their interests.

Music: Pandora vs. Internet radio

This example seems counter-intuitive – wouldn’t people want to listen to their favorite radio station online? This just never took off. Why? Internet radio contained way too much content – it wasn’t focused or specific enough. Consumers had to work too hard to find the music they liked. Once consumers were introduced to a better way to curate and listen to music, they were never going back. When Pandora allowed users to input their music preferences through both explicit selections and implicit actions to help shape their content stream, it changed the listening experience. Pandora made listening to music online personal. After Pandora, just listening to the radio online seemed like a waste of time.

Dining: Alfred (Google) vs. Opentable

OpenTable provides a free service that lets users make reservations online. The company first came on the scene in 1998, and has steadily built up its business – today over 25,000 restaurants are signed up with the service. While OpenTable provides restaurant recommendations along the side of the screen based on location, it is a feature rather than being core to the experience. Alfred, on the other hand, is a mobile app developed by Clever Sense (purchased by Google in December) that delivers dining recommendations based exclusively on your inputs and your Facebook check-ins and profile. By offering recommendations for restaurants that are personalized to consumer’s inputs and behavior Google could become a leading provider of time-critical dining data, and a big player in the multi-billion dollar restaurant industry.

These examples have all shown how companies that embrace personalization as a core value, and not just a feature can win. In today’s consumer-driven society companies that don’t pay attention to what people want most at any given moment risk losing significant market share to competitors that have built a culture around delighting customers with a highly personalized experience at every turn.