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Getting Personal: Why Personalisation Works


Website personalisation identifies each visitor to your website and serves them relevant, targeted content based on factors such as whether they are a first-time visitor, a returning visitor, whether they've come from a search engine or a referral link, where they are on the planet, and whether they've bought anything from your site before - and if so, what. And when. And how much of it. And in which size and flavour.

Interesting as that may sound, what's more interesting is why personalisation works - and what's going on in your brain when it is working.

One of the most powerful examples of personalisation was the 2004 study out of Houston University, Texas, by social scientist, Randy Garner, Ph.D. Randy wanted to test compliance with written requests, so he sent survey packs to 150 students, containing a survey and a typed covering letter containing a specific request: "Please take a few minutes to complete this for us. Thank You!"

50 subjects received this basic control package.

Another 50 students received the basic control package, but with a minor difference: on their covering letters the call to action was repeated, hand-written on the letter itself.

The final batch of 50 students received the same basic control package as everyone else, but this time the call to action was repeated in a different way: it was hand-written on a Post-It note, which was then stuck to the covering letter.

Being a scientist, Randy wondered if the way the request was presented would affect the survey's response rate. Randy was right to wonder. Here's how it panned out:

  • The standard survey package generated a 36% response rate.
  • The package with the call to action repeated in hand-writing on the covering letter generated a 48% response.
  • Adding a Post-It note with the hand-written repeated call to action drove responses up to a staggering 75% - more than double that of the control package.

Could it simply have been the bright yellow of the Post-It note itself, drawing the eye and capturing the attention of the respondents? Maybe. But Randy didn't know for sure, so he did the experiment again. Because that's his job.

Randy's second experiment was essentially the same as the first one, but this time he didn't bother with the version of the package that just had the call to action repeated in hand writing on the covering letter. Instead, he sent out the basic survey package with a blank Post-It note on the covering letter - with no repetition of the call to action anywhere, hand-written or otherwise.

So what happened? Well, the results of this second experiment were very similar to the first experiment: the control package mustered a response rate of 34%; the package with the hand-written Post-It hit 69%; and the package with the blank Post-It note on the covering letter showed a response of 43%, 9% higher than the control package, but still nowhere near the hand-written Post-It note's results.

So if it wasn't just the "magpie effect" from the bright yellow little paper square, what was going on?

Randy figured that machines and computers don't generally slap hand-written Post-It notes onto covering letters, so the recipients of the survey were responding to what they saw as the personal touch. The recipients recognised the fact that someone (rather than something) had made an effort (not a big effort, but an effort nonetheless) to make the communication more personal. The combination of writing on the Post-It note and then sticking it on the covering letter appeared to be enough of an effort made by the sender to warrant an equal or greater amount of effort to be made in return. This is the psychological law of reciprocity.

Reciprocity can be summed up as "you've scratched my back, therefore I now feel compelled to scratch yours".

But why do people feel the need to reciprocate? Reciprocity is the social glue that helps bring people together in co-operative relationships - and keeps them together. Reciprocity is the very foundation of society, which can be defined as: a grouping which allows its members to achieve needs or wishes they could not fulfil alone.

Society is an insurance policy, its laws and conventions protecting us against - amongst other things - illness, starvation, anarchy and loneliness. But the thing with society is that its members have to give something back, or it doesn't work. If a member of society doesn't give something back to the group, that individual risks being ostracised and denied society's many benefits.

That may have been the case when we were all living in caves and eating mud, you're thinking, but how does that apply to us today? Okay. Next time you're invited down the pub by your mates, don't get a round in. Nor the time after. You'll be lucky to get a third invite. Then you'll know what ostracisation means. Evolution has programmed us to instinctively reciprocate; it's a survival mechanism. And speaking of survival...

Pop Quiz 1 - Subject: Natural Disasters of 1985

Q: What have the Ethiopia famine and the Mexico City earthquake got in common - beyond the fact that they're both shocking natural disasters that occurred in 1985?

A: Reciprocation.

I'll explain. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia. And to add insult to injury, Mexico was one of only a handful of states to refuse to recognise Mussolini's rule as legal. The people of Ethiopia have never forgotten this, so when Mexico City was hit by the '85 earthquake, despite suffering from crippling famine (and civil war), Ethiopia felt compelled to reciprocate for Mexico's WWII diplomatic support, by sending them thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid.

And if you need any more proof of the power of reciprocation, then hands up who's had their car windscreen smeared by a scary bloke in a hoodie with a squeegee in one hand and a can of Special Brew in the other? Well, these people really know how to make reciprocation work for them by hacking into your instincts. They "clean" your windscreen, then ask for money. It's brilliant. And so simple. They've already done the work, therefore you feel you have to pay them, honouring your side of the unwritten, unspoken and unwitting contract. Gypsies are very good at leveraging the power of reciprocity too, with their lucky heather and their lucky clothes pegs and their lucky drive-tarmaccing.

But I digress. Back to Randy's experiment: was there anything else going on there, other than reciprocation? To answer that, let's move out of the realm of the psychological, and into that of the physiological.

Using MRI scans, scientists at the University of Michigan discovered that a very specific part of the brain deals with the sense of self. They looked at the success rates of anti-smoking campaigns and compared them with brain scan information from the study's participants. The study showed that giving up smoking was more successful when the specific part of the brain was triggered in advance by certain anti-smoking messages.

It appeared that the more personalised the anti-smoking message, the more this "self-rating" centre of the brain was triggered, and the more likely it was that a participant would give up cigarettes. When the information was deeply personal, targeted and relevant, it was acted upon, but when the anti-smoking message was generic, this key "self" region of the brain was not triggered, resulting in the participants not successfully giving up smoking.

Pop Quiz 2 - subject: Corporations Named After Rivers

Q: Earth's most customer-centric company. Whose corporate vision is this?

A: Amazon. You may have heard of them.

Amazon is making that vision a reality by triggering the "self" part of the brain in a big way. The Amazon website continuously suggests things that you might like based on your previous purchases, things you've looked at, and things that you haven't looked at - or purchased - but that other people have purchased who happen to have glanced at something that may or may not be a bit like something you accidentally clicked on one drunken Saturday night. It sounds complicated, and it is, but to Amazon it's worth it. Amazon's suggestions have more impact because, on the whole, they're targeted and relevant and they trigger that "self" part of the brain.

And nothing is more important to us than ourselves. As living organisms, evolution has given us no choice in the matter, and from a Darwinist's perspective, self-interest is a massive part of what drives us, whether we believe it - or like it - or not.

So it's no surprise that some of the world's most popular websites, like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, for example, tap into that self-interest and deal only in personalised content, or rather user-created content - which is about as personalised as it gets. Everyone's experience of these websites is unique, because the content's all about YOU, and the people and things YOU like.

Amazon doesn't deal predominantly in user-generated content, but it's right up there as one of the world's most visited websites. It's an e-commerce site that generates almost $30b a year, and no-one has the same shopping experience as anyone else. On Amazon, everything is personalised and everyone uses the site in a different way: some may go straight to the search box; others prefer to drill down through departments and categories; and many only bother acting on (equally personalised) email recommendations.

Knowing that Amazon's huge flexibility and personalisation directly appeals to our self-interest, answer this...

Pop Quiz 3 - subject: Your Website

Q: Can your visitors be "selfish" with your website?

A: I've got no idea, but it's important to ask yourself the question. And a couple of others…

Can your visitors personalise your site and its content to suit their needs? Can they access your material in different formats and in different ways? If not, then you're not appealing to our human desire to personalise - or control - the world around us.

Remember, each of your website's visitors is unique, with different needs, preferences and expectations. Appeal to their uniqueness - and their sense of self - and you will succeed online.

Dean Leybourn, Creative Director

Get in touch with us to find out how Fifth Dimension can make your website content more relevant, targeted and persuasive, using the power of personalisation.