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Is Personalization a Net Positive?


Solo man at the top of a mountain

“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” Mark Zuckerberg once said.

There was some gray in that statement. His use of “may” implies that. Unfortunately, when it comes to the execution of that vision, computers operate in a very binary and much less politically correct world.

Either Facebook’s engineers have instructed the code to show you the squirrel video that your neighbor just posted, or the humanitarian crisis in Africa.  

This dynamic exists everywhere. According to a recent Gizmodo article, the first self-driving car you purchase will undoubtedly be programmed to kill you if it means saving the lives of many others.

As the author points out, “there’s no known way to design a cake-and-eat-it-too algorithm that reconciles our moral values and the understandable human desire to not die.”

Personalization perils in ecommerce

Ecommerce personalization most definitely isn’t a life or death situation. But it can significantly change our relationship with the brands we interact with by narrowing our field of vision.

This is analogous to the “filter bubble” described by Eli Pariser. He says:

We’re used to thinking of the Internet like an enormous library, with services like Google providing a universal map. But that’s no longer really the case. Sites from Google and Facebook to Yahoo News and The New York Times are now increasingly personalized. Based on your web history, they filter information to show you the stuff they think you want to see. That can be very different from what everyone else sees—or from what we need to see.”

Ecommerce personalization is currently manifested in simple ways, such as redirects based on past browsing history, relevant messaging based on geolocation, and offers on products related to past purchases.

The hope is that narrowing the focus allows for two things: a better experience for the customer and a more profitable interaction for the brand.

As a cyber-optimist, I believe more often than not, the alignment of those two outcomes will produce positive outcomes for both parties. And from a Darwinist perspective, misalignment of these outcomes or poor execution of personalization strategies will slowly weed out the bad guys.

That said, we do need to recognize that customers will be classified into one of several groups and be shown the experience that the data science and engineering teams have prescribed for that group.

Some customers will be classified correctly, while the algorithm will fail others.

Some customers will desire the special treatment of the digital team’s personalization efforts, while others will desire to be treated anonymously.

Beyond the filter bubble

Maybe I am projecting, but what I believe is true for most (if not all) is the desire for transparency and understanding.

Personally, I would be much more willing to ride in an autonomous car if I understood the algorithm it uses to balance the cost of saving my life versus the lives of others.

And I would be much more excited about the future of personalization if I could peek out outside any “filter bubble” to see what the experience looks like as an anonymous user.

As we move forward into the world of personalization, both as the producers of our own ecommerce experiences and the consumers of all others, I hope that we continue to explore and advocate for simple, easy-to-find ways to opt-in or opt-out of personalization and provide clarity into the classification rules.  

Such functionality would allow for world-class digital experiences without the associated negative externalities of solely relying on data science and engineering teams to prescribe optimal experiences for us.

Reid headshot

Reid Bryant is the VP of data science and analytics at Brooks Bell. He uses advanced analytics and applied statistics to create data models, refine methodology, and generate deep insights from test results. Reid holds a Master of Science in analytics from the Institute for Advanced Analytics at North Carolina State University.



Brooks Bell helps top brands profit from A/B testing, through end-to-end testing, personalization, and optimization services. We work with clients to effectively leverage data, creating a better understanding of customer segments and leading to more relevant digital customer experiences while maximizing ROI for optimization programs. Find out more about our services.