From Personalization to Contextualization: Looking Towards the Future

This post is contributed by our own Lisa Walker, ecommerce strategist focused on emerging business trends and technology at Elastic Path.

We live in an exciting time, with an amazing array of interfaces and ecosystems offering up new ways to connect and converse with customers. In the world of digital marketing, frontiers are shifting as technology becomes more ubiquitous and our relationship with digital devices ever more personalized.

Marketing is now more of a big data and software business with much of the focus on understanding how content can be directed towards the specific interest of the person consuming it.

While companies continue to strive for an in-depth understanding their customer, surveys exploring attitudes toward personalization yield that a clear majority are ambivalent or hostile to the idea. In a survey on personalization and Google+ participation, Google discovered that “A minority said yes (15.5 percent) they liked search personalization. But a clear majority were ambivalent or hostile to the idea (84.5 percent). Within that majority 45 percent said they did not want search results personalized at all.”

I’m excited to go the Grow Conference: The Future of Business next week at the Convention Center in Vancouver BC. The conference is for young entrepreneurs and innovators to meet and discuss what’s on the horizon of our ever-expanding digital universe.

One person I’m interested to hear speak is Robert Scoble, who has been building online communities since 1985 and is currently Rackspace’s Startup Liaison Officer studying world-changing start-ups. I’ve been watching him for years as he interviews innovators in the digital space to better understand how technology helps us make sense of the world.

Robert Scoble along with his Gilmour Gang partner, Shel Israel, have observed this anti-personalization sentiment and are addressing it in an upcoming self-published book called Age of Context:

Age of Context intends to give you the other side, the one that argues the more your personal technology knows about who you are and what you like, the better it can serve you and make your life better; the more it can make your customers happier and, accordingly, your revenues bigger.

But what is context? Scoble writes:

Context is about how we relate to everything around us.It has to do with what we take in with our five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, and how what we perceive with them affects the situations we find ourselves in. It influences the choices we make, based on what’s going on around us and what we expect or want to do next.

So in this age of context and personalization, think about a sensor that measures your heartbeat rate, your cholesterol level or calorie consumption and then think about having an app that links this information to your coffee consumption in the morning through an API which taps directly into the coffee company’s purchase information.

Through my app I can now observe the direct effect of coffee on my nervous system. I can now see the interaction of the enzymes in the milk, sugar and caffeine affecting my brain, body and possibly serotonin levels.

For me, coffee is my little indulgence in the morning but one the app data may show me has a detrimental effect on my system. I can then have different reactions to this data in context of my own health: I could stop drinking coffee, modify my behavior or continue on as before believing that the health benefits of caffeine weigh out against the risks.

Realizing that it is inevitable this new information is going to emerge, a smart coffee business could examine the possible reactions to this new information and then adopt the best tactic for survival which is to control the multiple stories that come out of the data. An even smarter one would offer the sensors out to their customers as part of their brand.

So instead of people such as myself cutting out my morning cup, the coffee company could encourage me to move to a decaf, a lighter cream, or artificial sweetener. They could go even further, offering tips to alleviate the drawbacks of drinking coffee such as daily exercise quotas and healthy food choices.

Now as I’m able to monitor my heart and all these little things that go on inside of me when I drink a cup of coffee, the coffee company is giving me the conceptual framework to deal with the information, helping put it all into context.

The conversation with the customer is now expanded. As Scoble and Israel write:

We don’t think the conversational age is ending, but it is morphing rapidly into something new, bigger and more profound. In this new era, now beginning, our relationships with our technology will become far more personal than has ever been the case. Our devices will know us better than our most intimate friends do today.

Contextualization can be “on your way to the grocery store”, the weather, the time you wake up, the state of your body. Yes, marketers and product designers will use every bit of this information to their advantage but the final advantage will be for us to utilize sensors and technology in a way that betters the choices we make about our health and lives.

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