Rejecting Buzzwords: Why Personalization Is Not a “Silver Bullet” for Publishers
Ask any publisher what the biggest trend is today and you’re sure to hear something about the importance of one-to-one marketing, or personalization. But personalization's effectiveness has been artificially inflated, and unfortunately a lot of publishers are buying into the hype. As great as it sounds, one-to-one marketing really isn’t that big of a deal for publishers. It’s a necessary audience development tool, but one of many that publishers must consider.
Challenge #1: Most Readers Are Unknown
Sure, publishers can personalize in a certain way – think personalized site content or emails with tailored content – but this approach requires data that most publishers don’t actually have. Publishers that focus their efforts on personalization are overlooking the fact that they don’t have access to the breadth and depth of user data that internet giants such as Facebook and Google have. Because of this, personalization can only enhance the experience for a small percentage of their audience, and this group is already engaged to begin with.
Most publisher traffic today is effectively anonymous since it comes from search and social networks. Yet a reader’s data history is required for personalization to be effective. Most publishers can’t track visitors because of the large volumes of people that click through to articles from a Google search or a Facebook post. In fact, for typical publishers, over 70% of visitors have no data or not enough history for automation to work effectively. Publishers that focus on one-to-one content curation are being counterproductive because they are misdirecting time that would be better spent on other efforts.
Challenge #2: Readers from Social Media Don’t Engage Deeply With Content
Publishers need to step back and look at how social networks have changed how media is consumed. In the era of Facebook, most consumers are reading news stories on their phones in short increments. These readers are scrolling to kill time in between meetings or while they're waiting for the bus. Even if an article does grab the reader's attention, publishers don't get that attention for long: on average these readers will check out an additional 0.2 pages on the publisher’s site, before returning to their feed to look at photos of their friend’s kids or a trailer for a new film they want to see. In reality, the average Facebook visitor generates less than five lifetime page views (or approximately $0.05 in advertising revenue). Personalization is ineffective when it comes to this anonymous traffic. Facebook can make it work because owns all the data, but it doesn’t share it with publishers.
Instead, Focus on Conversion
The real issue that publishers face today is how to build sustainable direct relationships with these anonymous readers who are clicking through from outside sources. Personalization doesn’t solve this issue, because it doesn’t help publishers find out who is visiting their site. Think about this in terms of how engagement is measured. Most publishers measure their audience in terms of monthly unique visitors, but these are not the same visitors month-to-month. The average publisher has only 41% repeat visitors, which means the majority of site visits are from unknown people. So why would publishers spend time personalizing content for people they know nothing about?
Doing so can be destructive because a personalization algorithm will skew the limited information available, possibly sending the reader down the wrong path. Yes, publishers should think about doing some smart personalization based on what is known about a visitor, such as the traffic channel (e.g. visitors from search behave very differently from social visitors), and the type of content they are currently reading (e.g. contextual recommendations). But shortly thereafter, publishers should encourage newsletter signup and try to establish a relationship that can, over time, become personalized to a known audience member.
Publishers can and should continue to personalize, but they need to understand that this approach is only an optimization for already engaged users. Personalization will not solve their bigger strategic problems. Instead of being thought of as the Holy Grail of marketing, publishers should understand that one-to-one marketing is just one tool in the digital marketing arsenal. In order to maximize revenues, publishers need to look beyond personalization and strategically position themselves to build long-term direct relationships with these unknown site visitors. This is the true challenge facing their business in 2017.
Publishing Executive will host a FUSE Media Forum on The Pursuit of Personalization on June 21st, 2017 in New York City, to explore the technology behind personalization and how publishers are leveraging their data to increase engagement, improve ad targeting, and grow user-generated revenue. Learn more about FUSE Media Forum here.