How Personalization Has Shaped Media Over the Past Decade

In recent articles, Pace has been covering the hot topic of content personalization. Strategist Sarita Dan advised readers on four ways to increase personalization, and email guru Morgan South gave readers four email personalization tips. My passion for personalization is rooted in the media industry, so I wanted to continue our personalization series by taking you through some key learnings that I’ve gathered over the past decade and how they can help you.

In 2010, when I was at UNC doing my MBA/MSIS program, I chose to focus my master’s thesis on content personalization and specifically test if passive or interactive content garnered better retention rates and/or satisfaction levels. I executed a small-scale qualitative study of six passive and six interactive multimedia presentations on millennial users (born 1980–1994). Data from the study, while not conclusive, suggested that users retained ever so slightly more information when viewing passive multimedia, but considered their experience more enjoyable when viewing interactive multimedia.

Little did I know at the time that the next decade would see a tidal wave of start-ups and new products creating an interactive and personalized experience for its consumers. Flipboard, Google News and Apple News became the major digital news personalization players. On the media side, you likely recall the horror investors felt in 2007 when Netflix announced it was splitting the company to focus on streaming content. Its stock tanked … momentarily. But Netflix’s success with streaming content and creating a personalized experience via its intelligent recommendation engine was – and still is – a game-changer. Music platforms Pandora and Spotify also rocked the otherwise stagnant recording industry. Content personalization quickly became the shiny, sexy object that all media executives were drooling over.

Sadly, however, the print newspaper world was (and still is) stagnant. Print readers continued to get their clunky newspaper, where each reader found only a small percentage of content relevant. Their online news sites and email newsletters disseminated the same experience to all readers. I saw the shift to personalization happening elsewhere but not in the key market that I was working in, so I decided to give it a go. I built a technology platform that would enable news readers to personalize their content by preferred source, category and/or keyword via email, a mobile app and website that would create a personalized, downloadable asset so print lovers could enjoy their own unique newspapers. I secured a yearlong fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute out of the University of Missouri, and with that funding I was able to conduct a six-month pilot with the Austin American-Statesman. The paper decided to A/B test just the email newsletter component to see if my personalized version would garner better results than the standard newsletter. You can read all about the project or skip right to the results, which showed that personalized emails were nearly twice as likely to be opened and almost three times more likely to have a story actually read by a subscriber.

Fast-forward another five years – I currently lead the creative team for several of our larger accounts in the CPG and technology sectors. With those clients, I often think about how we can integrate personalized experiences into the content we are creating. Many times it doesn’t make financial or logistical sense. But when it does, it pays off in big ways. For example, Pace launched Argo’s 2017 annual report as an interactive console to create a personalized experience for its shareholders and other stakeholders to learn more about the business, its strategic priorities and its financial status. The analytics from its 2017 report won hands down over the more traditional, static 2016 report.

So what does all this mean to you?

Keep interactivity and personalization top of mind for all large marketing initiatives. When deciding when to use it, first ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Does the topic warrant personalization?
  2. Do we have the budget to incorporate it?
  3. Do we have the time to execute it properly?
  4. Will the foreseeable ROI (however you are measuring that for the content, ideally a combination of both top-of-funnel metrics like impressions and bottom-of-funnel conversions) be worth the additional time and money required up front?

If the answer to all four questions above is “yes,” then go for it! You will NOT be disappointed.

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