Personalization, according to Wikipedia,

consists of tailoring a service or a product to accommodate specific individuals, sometimes tied to groups or segments of individuals. A wide variety of organizations use personalization to improve customer satisfaction, digital sales conversion, marketing results, branding, and improved website metrics as well as for advertising. Personalization is a key element in social media and recommender systems.

Over the past decade advances in data mining and computer mediated communications technology have created the opportunity for dynamic mass personalization of information and interactions within electronic systems. The opportunity to extend and leverage this capability pervasively across multiple communications channels is tempting.

According to Marketo,

Marketers now know and understand that effective email marketing is targeted and personal. Unfortunately, this vital learning is not applied equally across channels and programs, especially on websites.” “Every day, marketers are ignoring their own best practices and offering the exact same experience to every website visitor, every time they arrive—regardless of their behavior or attributes. Magnify that by thousands, sometimes millions, of visits, and marketers are missing a huge opportunity to truly connect with their audience as individuals—which makes a real impact on their revenue. And that’s where web personalization comes in.

Web personalization helps marketers make their websites as personal and targeted as their other communications and activities. Specifically, the term web personalization refers to creating a dynamically personalized, highly relevant website experience for your website visitor (anonymous or known), based on their behavior, location, profile, and other attributes.

The approach and benefits of such pervasive personalization are described as follows:

Done right, web personalization means understanding and meeting your visitors’ interests, tailoring your website to fit their profiles, and ultimately providing them with a relevant experience—whether that’s a message, visual, content, or offer. Today it’s a mission-critical marketing activity that creates a more meaningful experience for your visitors and also generates better business results.

The benefits of personalized email and other vehicles for delivering commercial offers and solicitations are self evident — most of us prefer personalized, relevant emails vs irrelevant, boilerplate email and offers. But is extending the email example “equally across channels and programs, especially on websites” good advice?

We think not.

This advice may be good advice for e-commerce websites and those websites that, like emails, are primarily vehicles for delivering offers and solicitations. But what about company websites, informational websites, personal websites, writers / authors / designers blogs and websites, community building websites, online business brochure/catalog, and directory websites?

For most of these types of websites, the advice is little more than justifying a profit-maximizing website tactic by claiming that it will improve customer experience. In these cases it is bad advice because it ignores (a) customer expectations — site visitors are expecting to receive facts, not facts personalized for them, and (b) the social dimension of many web experiences — many websites are discovered through sharing and personalization can disrupt the shared experience.

Imagine visiting a new, interesting website and recommending it to a friend because you believe she will appreciate it; but when your friend visits, the personalization engine delivers different content and experience based on her profile.

What has happened is that the website is substituting algorithmic judgment for yours and altering your friend’s experience based on that judgment. Will your friend like the served experience? Would she like the experience that was tailored for you better? Will the substituted experience be similar to what you explained to your friend — or so different that the shared experience is lost?

“Magnify that by thousands, sometimes millions, of visits, and marketers are missing a huge opportunity to truly connect with their audience as” members of a shared community — which propagates social balkanization and “makes a real impact on” society. Contrast this statement with the following and the potential side effect of pervasive hyper-personalization starts to become clear:

“Magnify that by thousands, sometimes millions, of visits, and marketers are missing a huge opportunity to truly connect with their audience as individuals—which makes a real impact on their revenue.”

Net-net: human beings are social, and the point of diminishing returns on personalization — whereby financial gains are accompanied by unmeasured, but real societal loss — can be quickly reached.

As system designers we have a responsibility to recognize and factor these social costs into our recommendations and designs.