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How do you personalize products in the digital age?

by Nis Frome

According to Kevin Kelley, a futurist and New York Times Bestselling Author, “Every 12 months we produce 8 million new songs, 2 million new books, 16,000 new films, 30 billion blog posts, 182 billion tweets, 400,000 new products.” That’s great news for consumers, but what does it mean for those of us trying to engage distracted consumers?

How do you compete when anyone with a garage can spin up a server and disrupt a market within days? How can you stand out in this digital age? While there is no silver bullet, we’ve noticed a common strategy that product leaders leverage to gain a competitive advantage. Using Alpha, they generate on-demand consumer insights and build for the actual wants and needs of the market.

We recently hosted our inaugural event in Los Angeles with a thoughtful conversation on the topic of personalization led by Anuraag Verma, Head of Business Development at Alpha. Panelists included Josh Snow, VP of Product at NBC Entertainment, Shazan Ashroff, Director of Product Management at Tinder, Jason Davis, CEO of Simon Data, and Stephanie Levin, Senior Director of Product Management at Beachbody.

Below are video highlights from the event, key takeaways, and a video of the unedited discussion.


Go beyond buzzwords to engage distracted consumers

Personalization is not a goal in and of itself, said Snow. It’s a means to an end, but you have to begin with that end and work backward.

“Everyone has had an executive say ‘we need to have personalization.’ It’s just a method to get to something far more important than personalization,” he explained. “[And that’s] ‘trust.’ Trust is what you’re trying to establish between your customers and your business.”

Snow reflected on a common misconception in the digital age: the fallacy that personalization is a new concept and capability.

“Throughout the history of mankind, people had businesses that tried to establish trust with their customers, because that brings loyalty, repeat customers, higher value, and revenue. Personalization is a way to enable trust.”

It’s actually the advent of the digital age that created as much separation between creators and consumers. Instead of calling the same local black cab service for every trip to the airport, you tap a few buttons on a phone and a car arrives. The same is virtually true for food delivery, plumbing, and house cleaning.

That’s why personalization techniques enabled by platforms like Alpha is so critically important, according to Snow. It’s a return to fundamentals.

Evaluate effectiveness by measuring outcomes

Putting Snow’s advice into more granular terms, personalization is a measurable and therefore optimizable activity. It takes more than slapping a user’s first name into an email and calling it a day.

You can pursue a number of shotgun efforts, said Ashroff, and you might notice some upward ticks. But thoughtful approaches yield far better results. “The moment you tell someone that there’s an action they need to take based on personalized data, you can see that increase based on what they’re going to do, and have them engage a lot more,” he explained.

Measure the effectiveness of personalization in terms of those actions and outcomes, and not in terms of the ‘amount’ of personalization integrated into a product.

Ethics begins with the user’s perspective

Of course, any conversation about using data today must take privacy and security into consideration. Each panelist provided lessons and guard rails deployed within their organizations, while Davis stressed the importance of the user’s perspective.

Product teams might think that because an activity generates revenue or increases Net Promoter Score in the short-term, that necessarily means that it’s a good and safe idea, he explained. “If the user perceives an action as being creepy, even if some results show it’s going to have a [positive impact for your business], it’s going to come back to hurt you.”

He also warned against certain forms of artificial intelligence and machine learning that can’t be re-engineered. It’s one thing to make a decision about personalization that a user disagrees with, said Davis. But that problem is exacerbated if you can’t see into the black box to determine how and why it happened, and may not be able to prevent it from happening again in the future.

Start small and move faster

Whatever personalization tactics you pursue, start small, Levin advised. “Even if you have a really intense legacy [database], use what you’ve got. If you’ve got tools like Alpha, you need to be able to test this stuff.”

The world is moving fast and organizations don’t have the time or resources to invest in building the wrong technologies and solutions, Levin explained. Doing so also routinely hurts engineering morale.

“You should be very cautious of spending a ton of money doing something you’re not so confident in. Try something and iterate,” she concluded.

Watch the full conversation below:


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Nis Frome

Nis Frome is the co-founder of Alpha, the platform that enables management teams to make data-driven decisions about users, products, and new markets.

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