March 7, 2021

Is Ecommerce Personalisation a good thing?

Dr Peter Mowforth

Being surrounded by things that are personalised to you is obviously going to be a good thing. Right?Or is it?I’m asking the question following recent experiences with youtube. I have a personal dabbling interest in stonemasonry following a few ‘projects’ in the garden. Like most things, the more you find out, the more you realise you don’t know. I started youtube researching how ancient civilisations managed to cut and shape massive blocks of granite and get them to fit together with millimetre precision. Nobody has a sensible answer. I eventually gave up and wanted to go back to my usual viewing of live rock music, gardening tips and scientific how-to videos. The problem was that youtube kept wanting to show me videos of Egyptian and Inca stone buildings. It took a long time before ‘normal viewing’ was returned.The same thing has happened to me on some ecommerce websites. If I research and then buy a one-off present for some nutty relation with bad taste then the site calculates that my prior purchases represent some ongoing area of interest which they certainly are not.Worse still lies in wait for those who get their news from social media. Rather than getting news from reputable channels such as Reuters, BBC, ONS, the Register or NewScientist, some people keep up-to-date via stories foisted on them in between social chitchat. All social media channels personalise their news. Stories that get pushed your way will be influenced by what you have read before or what your friends may have liked. The end result is the siloed mindsets that contributed to people believing that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 election (ref), that aliens built the pyramids (ref) or that Amazon ‘thinks’ I’m into ladies clothing.In the world of ecommerce, personalisation is one of the hot topics of 2017.With Shopify websites, extensions such as Product Customizer, Product Builder or Qstomizer are the most popular (ref). With WooCommerce, the most popular extension, Add-ons, provides a few simple ways to promote recommended purchases (ref). With Magento, the most popular extensions are SmartFocus and Nosto. Nosto represents the enterprise end of personalisation where it not only provides on-site recommendations but also neatly hooks in with Facebook and Instagram, providing a variety of site pop-ups coupons and vouchers and even ties in with email systems such as DotMailer with a wide range of marketing widgets.Do these systems increase sales. Emphatically, yes. For that reason alone, any business that is serious about ecommerce should be using them.However, my nagging concern comes back to the rather crude and primitive ways that this current (first) generation of personalisation tools operate. My point is that personalisation, if we’re to do it properly, still has a long way to go.If we consider how ecommerce personalisation could be improved, here are a few ideas that might help take us in the right direction:

  • Differentiate between items that are of genuinely long-term interest from those that are more likely to be one-off purchases made for somebody else.
  • If I had just bought a chainsaw online then I’m unlikely to be interested in buying another one. Rather than the website pointing me to other chainsaws, it might do better to be recommending safety clothing, goggles or advanced first aid kits.
  • Given the background of the online buyer, the system should try to identify completely new categories that potentially fit the persona. This is all about group behavioural modelling.
  • Consider factoring in metrics about gender, (reading) age, birthdays, anniversaries, family events and other calendar-related items.

If all this were done, how might shoppers respond? Would some be thankful for having online systems that delivered greater relevancy or might others users feel umbridge being second guessed by robotic AI. If we assume that both things will happen then the best personalising tools need to figure out those who will be offended by the perceived intrusion and minimise personalisation bias for them. I suppose you might have to call that the personalisation of personalisation.

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