As consumers, we are presented with an array of choices each day. We can have our Starbucks – venti, grande, toasted, skinny, decaf, iced, spiced or espresso. We can communicate with friends by post, email, text, phone, VOIP or tweet. Our shoes can come in leather, suede, moccasin or canvas and be loafers, brogues, high-heeled or wedged. Even a simple shampoo can now also nourish, lift, cleanse, condition and colour!

All this choice is a good thing. Or so we’re told.

Why is customer choice sometimes a bad thing?

Choice makes us feel empowered and gives us a sense of control. There is nothing worse than being in a situation and faced with that feeling of having no options. One would think then that by increasing the amount of choices available, this might make for a better, more pleasurable experience. Surprisingly, this is rarely the case.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests in Why More Is Less that rather than experiencing increased choice as pleasure, we actually experience a paralysis and anxiety when faced with multiple options. Rather than customer choice being a joy – it can often seem like a chore!

The opportunity, therefore, is for brands to help consumers make the right choice. Much like the helpful shop attendant who asks if you would like any help and then directs you to the item you were looking for, brands can use personalization to much the same effect.

Things brands can do to make the experience better

A great example of this is Netflix – the online movie streaming service. Remember the experience of walking into Blockbusters and not knowing which of the hundreds of films to rent? Netflix uses algorithms that recommend movies to individuals based on their historic film choices to alleviate this problem. By tracking the movies you’ve watched and cross-referencing them with viewers with similar viewing habits, Netflix can best suggest the movies that suit your tastes. By creating an increasingly curated experience that is personalized to individuals, Netflix increases repeat visits to the service, improves the amount of time users spend with the service and reduces likelihood of unsubscribes

Amazon, the popular online retailer, employs similar techniques whereby a product is recommended to a browser based on a number of simple elements: what a user has bought in the past, which items they have in their virtual shopping cart, items they’ve rated and liked, and what other customers have viewed and purchased. Through a technique known as ‘item-to-item collaborative filtering’, Amazon’s algorithms are able to make informed and targeted suggestions (“People who bought X also bought Y”) to encourage users to buy more.

Personalizing content and other services

It’s not just a multiplicity of products and services that afflict the 21st century consumer, there is also a content overload too.

According to a DOMO study, YouTube users upload 48 hours of video, Facebook users share 684,478 pieces of content, Instagram users share 3,600 new photos, and Tumblr sees 27,778 new posts published. This plethora of content far outnumbers the amount of products a brand, and is actually presents a tremendous opportunity for brands to serve customers by carefully selecting and republishing the most useful pieces.

Recently, C-Spire, a US telecommunications company, launched Newslink – an online service that finds, organises, and personalizes news content to you from all over the web. Newslink doesn’t just use the collaborative filtering and explicit taste data techniques employed by Amazon and Netflix, but also looks at user’s social graphs (i.e. what they are doing, saying and sharing on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook) to learn more about the individual and deliver to them the most relevant news content about their interests.

The future of customer choice

Services such as Newslink, which utilise social graphs and content interactions to make better informed content recommendations, will most likely lead the next generation of personalization for consumers. Where brands utilise content as a means to attract, engage and retain customers, and use personalization as a mean to create improve the customer experience.

Whilst personalization may seem like gimmick to some, it is actually an important mechanism to enhance the customer experience. By helping consumers to wade through a world cluttered with products, messages and content, brands are making themselves to be relevant, useful and invaluable.

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