How personal should you get?
Interest is stirring again in offering elements tailored to different users, but the wide spectrum of options needs careful assessment, says David Bowen.
|Aviva Your Page||3M|
|General Electric||General Motors|
|Chris Barger, Twitter|
Should you personalise your corporate site, one web manager was asking recently? No, her peers replied, but you should regionalise it. It raises a question that has bubbled ever since the web began: to what extent should you tailor your online communications to your audience? It is possible to draw a line with personalisation at one end and an undifferentiated global website at the other. Where should you be? The answer comes back to my favourite word: ‘appropriate’.
Personalisation was a buzzword in the late 1990s, driven by the one-to-one marketing thing and leading some companies to install cumbersome systems that (in theory) tracked and reacted to visitor behaviour. But it only really made sense on sites – mainly in e-commerce – where visitors were likely to return regularly. People who ran information or corporate sites got more frustration than benefit.
But in the past few years personalisation has popped up again on non e-commerce sites, in at least three forms.
First, look at the NASA home page and you will see seven links along the top: For Public, For Educators, For Students, For Media, For Policymakers, For Employees, MyNASA. The first six change the home page. ‘For Public’ is the default, but click the For Media link, and press notices are prominent; click For Employees and internal links are promoted; and so on. MyNASA is a page where you can add your own elements, and also see video and audio that you have bookmarked as you moved round the site.
This home page configuration is quite low-tech but could be effective, not least because it does not depend on regular visits to have a rationale. Sadly, the site cannot remember your preference, which would make good sense.
Second, try the London law firm Withers. The snazzy home page has a large space in the middle. To the left, below news and a people search, is ‘Customise this page’. Click ‘Add Content’, and a panel appears offering news feeds – from the BBC, Reuters, CNN and others – along with the option to add your own RSS feed. As you add a feed it appears in a panel in centre of the page – you can rearrange your panels just as you can reorganise an iGoogle home page.
I have reservations about this implementation, because I can’t see why someone would use a law firm website to check news; the only law-specific feed offered is CNN Law. But the idea is intriguing, and if the feeds proposed were more relevant (law-specific), I can see value. It does not take much of a step to see how other companies could do something similar.
Third, Aviva has accepted that personalisation works best with frequent visitors, and asked who they are. Its answer is investors, which is why its Investor Relations section alone can be personalised. The Your Page link asks you to register, choose a profile for yourself (retail, institutional, debt, CSR), then adjust it by adding or removing elements. It makes sense, particularly for analysts who follow Aviva closely, because they can immediately get to the data they need. Next step on the ladder of analyst happiness would surely be to transfer the system to Aviva’s mobile site.
All these approaches could make sense, but web managers will think hard before choosing any of them. Many of the benefits of personalisation can be achieved by crystal clear navigation – simpler and cheaper.
Regional development or fragmentation?
Next approach along the line is to tailor content to broader groups – most obviously, different nationalities. Any web estate that has country sites does this, of course, but some go further by localising everything. Go to 3M and you are presented with a gateway page asking which country you want; there is no global content. Samsung and AIG do not even ask – they use a ‘sniffer’ to work out where you are, and present you with they think is your local site (Google does this too).
I’m not really convinced by this for a corporate site. Not so much because the sniffer might get it wrong, or because it will not understand if you are you are away from home, but because it gives the impression the company is not a truly global organisation. Do you not have common messages you want to share? do you really want to come across as a series of little companies? A well-constructed web estate that allows people to come in either from the global (dot com) or local (country) end seems to me more satisfactory.
Operating without boundaries
The trick with the global site is to shed all nationality, with the obvious exception of language (English, whether we like it or not, is an essential badge of globalism). The one thing you must not do is to say you’re global and then not be. US companies have a struggle here because most of them use the dot com address for both the global and US sites. The two do not always sit easily together.
Two answers here. Be bold enough to create a separate US site – as 3M does, helped by its global gateway approach. Or remember that you have a global audience, and avoid too many US-specific references. It’s not that difficult to avoid a specific look, text or references, as long as you are aware of what is and is not nationally distinct. General Electric has got it right. It used to promote programmes made by its subsidiary NBC; then it stopped, presumably because it realised that 95 per cent of the potential audience for the (global) site could not view (US) television programmes.
The danger of isolationalism
But the other general, General Motors (GM), has not got the hang of it. Its home page has a small menu leading to country sites, but is otherwise relentlessly US-focused. Of course, GM is now retreating to its homeland, selling the European operations it has owned for 90 years. But there’s nothing new about the home page approach. GM.com is about Chevrolet, Cadillac and Buick, not Opel or Vauxhall.
I suspect it’s also about the attitude in Detroit. In fact, switching to that other window on the world, Twitter, I’d say I know it is. On 10 September, GM announced it was selling its European operations. Its social media manager, Chris Barger, did not mention this in any of his posts – his headline that day was that he was taking his son to the Phantom of the Opera at the Detroit Opera House.
Fair enough, given that he is in America and that Twitterers must by law tell us about their private lives? Not really. First, Mr Barger lays claim to a global outlook, saying he is “telling the world about General Motors, one Tweet at a time”. Second, Europeans wanting to see what Detroit was saying about shedding an operation it has owned since the 1920s might feel a little aggrieved. Not appropriate, I’d say.
First published on 23 September, 2009