What is Personalisation?

implicit, adaptive and explicit personalisation explored
Without personalisation, the Web is a 'static' environment where every user is presented with the same content and users will select which content to view based on navigation and search results. As a result without personalisation Web Experience Management is predominantly a low engagement 'pull' relationship that a user has with content. Personalisation changes this relationship into an environment where the web assists the user in their voyage of discovery by pushing content to the forefront in a manner that is specific to their 'journey' or interest. In this way the web content is deemed to be managed and the content provided in context to the user.

The background to personalisation

'Personalisation' is not a new term. It originally became popular in the mid 1990's with products such as ATG and Broadvision as a means of elevating a website to a level of functionality that enhances the visitor experience. However, the first time around the complexity involved in deploying such technologies was such that only the 'richest' websites could afford to deploy and maintain the technologies required. Early pioneers of personalisation would be companies like Amazon and Ebay.

    The current resurgence of personalisation is due to three main factors;

  • The cost of deploying it has dropped dramatically - and it has become easier to maintain as an ongoing website service. Gone are the days where to have personalisation required doubling the web team and 6 or 7 figure investments.
  • Mid tier WCMS solutions seeking to differentiate themselves from the huge number of competitors have extended the core web content management functionality they offer as a default to include personalisation tools that elevate their solution to provide 'enterprise level' capabilityas 'out of the box' functionality
  • There is now so much content available, that companies are struggling to get their visitors to see the correct content. Arguably the widespread use of WCMS solutions has exacerbated this situation as they have empowered non technical staff to be able to produce ever increasing amounts of content in a way that was not possible ten years ago � whilst there are many upsides to WCMS - one of the downsides is that websites can potentially be a lot larger than they were when they were managed by technical staff - which in turn reduces the ability of navigation alone to guide users to the correct content.

If ever there was a time for Personalisation to make a come back its right now. The fact that the Return On Investment is quicker to realise and enhances the user experience has resulted in a renewed interest in the way in which content can be delivered in context. Expect to hear WCMS vendors talking about 'Web Experience Management', 'Segmentation', 'Content in Context' as well as 'Prescriptive and Adaptive Personalisation'.

Before we begin to look at the ways personalisation is implemented, it's important to understand the fundamental difference between a personalised website and a non-personalised website. For clarification;

A non personalised website typically presents the same content to all users regardless of e.g. profile, personal preferences and clicking behaviour - as such it could be said to be a static experience in that all users get the same content. Such web experiences rely on navigation and search for users to extract information from the site. It can be argued that such websites are 'pull oriented' as it requires the visitor to select an item before it is presented to them. Equally if they use the search facility they are 'pulling' content based on their own provided search criteria.

A personalised website is in many ways the exact opposite. True - it will still have a navigation structure for users to be able to move around the website - and true it will still usually have a search facility for users to 'pull' content - but the big difference is that the experience can be changed to be different to the visitor based on a number of factors. It can be argued that a personalised website is 'push' oriented - as content is far more controlled and can be specifically targeted at a visitor rather than relying on them finding it.

Types of Personalisation

The two main types of personalisation available today break down into 'Prescriptive Personalisation' and 'Adaptive Personalisation'.

Prescriptive Personalisation

This describes a type of personalisation that is rule based and triggered by interactions with a user. Insight into a user can come from a number of so called dimensions such as; customer profile & preferences, recent activity & history, current clicking behaviour, where the customer came from (e.g. search engine), context � time of day, seasonality etc, social preferences and interests, CRM driven knowledge. Essentially prescriptive personalisation details that we set up business logic within a website that when triggered by a users activity is used to change the 'static' display of content to one that matches the visitor. To simplify the process of building the business rules, visitors will often be broken down into blocks or 'segments' so this type of personalisation is also sometimes referred to as 'segmentation'.

Prescriptive personalisation can essentially be further broken down into two main types:- Explicit Personalisation and Implicit Personalisation.

  • Explicit Personalisation in summary is where a visitor elects a profile - or is given a profile that determines they will see content in a manner that is specific to their requirements or choices.
  • Implicit Personalisation in summary is where the behaviour of a user as they navigate a website is monitored / tracked and content is presented to them based on a business logic that interprets their clicking pattern into a most appropriate delivery of content (to match the users behaviour).

A) Explicit Personalisation

A profile is a setting or collection of settings that tell a website to give a defined set of pages (or objects or applications) to a visitor based on the fact that we know who they are. Once we (as the website owner) know who they are - we can either allow them to make their own choices as to what they would like to see (Passive Explicit Personalisation) - or allocate content choices based on a logic layer that we have applied as appropriate to that profile for that given user (Segmented Explicit Personalisation).

----Passive Explicit Personalisation (PEP)

Any situation in which the end user is given the capability to customise / tailor / select the features (such as pages, applications, services) provided, or how information is delivered to them can be considered to be a Passive Explicit experience - its passive in the sense they may or may not elect to personalise their view.

Typical examples of such aspects could be 'my favourite links', or whether or not to see 'recently visited pages' - or whether to see the local weather content - Yahoo being one of the earliest pioneers of this type of interface selection.

PEP is often the easiest type of personalisation to deploy - as from a web administration point of view the user is essentially given the same view as everyone else to start with - but then creates their own preferences and stores them against a log in or cookie. The administrator simply determines which aspects will be presented as options for the visitor to select or deselect. The PEP experience can be something that is tailored afresh every time a user visits a site - but in most cases its 'stored' against a cookie or a user name and password.

PEP may have been 'bleeding edge' and attractive to a visitor five years ago - but its popularity peaked and has declined in many cases due to the fact that users have to remember too many log ins and as a result don't go back to their logged in profile but simply use the default for speed - or put another way the benefits fail to excite the user to the point they are willing to return to the profile they have created. It could be argued this is a failure on the part of the website owner to make the PEP experience compelling enough - or it could just reflect the generic 'fickleness' of a web audience.

----Segmented Explicit Personalisation (AEP)

Any situation where a user is given a profile - and the profile is used to determine what content will be shown to them would come under the banner of Segmented Explicit Personalisation. It is often referred to as Segmentation - based on the fact that content is being broken down or 'segmented' and allocated to users or groups of users - but in essence its major difference from Passive Explicit is that the choice of content presented is made by the website owner and not the visitor.

For websites that have a lot of content, SEP can often be one of the most effective ways of overcoming information overload. Instead of presenting the entire entire content repository to them and relying on them searching or navigating to the correct content, profiles can be created for groups or users that remove content that is not appropriate to their needs and only display relevant information. They can still navigate once they are logged in to their profile and pull content in the traditional way - but the 'on screen real estate' can be packed with aspects that are relevant to their needs.

The creation of SEPs also allows for content to be targeted to user groups from a Marketing perspective. If I know that a visitor has a certain profile then I can display e.g. banner adverts that are targeted to that profile. If there are 'offers' for a certain product that I wish to be seen, then these can be channelled to the appropriate profile.

SEP is also one of the most effective ways to generate an Extranet environment. In the same way that I can use a profile to target content to a visitor, I can also use it to deny access to a visitor. In this way e.g. Profile A might see designated sections, pages, services within a website - whereas Profile B might see totally different content.

SEP is certainly more involved to administer than PEP - first and foremost because the moment you create a managed profile, you as the website owner are making assumptions about which content to present to which user or profile. If you get this right it can be a very powerful way of separating your audience and ensuring that the most appropriate content is displayed. If you get it wrong you could have sensitive content in the wrong hands - or a user experience that turns visitors away.

It would be true to say that for this reason - the number of SEP profiles created by most customers deploying this type of personalisation is usually small to start with and can be as simple as public facing content profile and an extranet profile that gives access to less public content.

With both Segmented and Passive Explicit Personalisation - the very fact that a user is having to provide details about themselves (to be able to determine the most appropriate content or provide a username against which to store the personalised view) becomes often one of the biggest reasons for rejection on the part of the user. There is an ever growing 'swell' of users reluctant to provide personal details, which makes it hard to use explicit personalisation in certain situations..

There are companies trying to set themselves up as a 'profile' centre for users- on the basis they give their demographic details once and then refer to this when requesting a login profile to another website - but this has so far yet to make inroads to the vast majority of Internet users - which it would need to do to become a successful alternative.

One option involves using a combination of implicit (tracked) personalisation together with explicit to log users into a segmented (SEP) experience without them giving personal details which will be covered in Implicit Personalisation options.

B) Implicit Personalisation

Implicit Personalisation could be seen as the 'goal' of every personalised website - in that unlike its counterpart (Explicit Personalisation), Implicit does not require a user to log in or provide any details.

Sometimes called 'Behavioural Tracking', the concept behind Implicit Personalisation is that users visit a website and their clicking activity is then monitored and tracked. Each incremental click is then used to determine what content to show the user surrounding the item they selected. Amazon was one of the early pioneers of this sort of tracking - and if you visit their site and select a book or film, it tells you that other people that looked at the item you are looking at also looked at these other items.

Call it a cross sell - or a soft sell - what implicit personalisation allows you to do is follow the behaviour of your visitor and then based on where they go in the site dynamically alter the presented content to ever increasingly mirror their clicking activity. Furthermore - implicit personalisation can be used to not only filter the display of content at the web page level, it can be used to filter the content displayed from other applications. In this way third party content sources rather than being static displays can adapt to display content that reflects the continued journey of a user through a site.

Banner adverts can be rotated to reflect the clicking behaviour of a user and display the adverts that are most appropriate to the user. A visitor could be coming to your website having clicked on an advert on another website and could be logged on to a segmented explicit experience under the guise of a campaign ID or an advert source and then have them implicitly managed through the rest of the experience.

Underlying what can be an endless list of examples of how implicit personalisation can be used is a business logic layer - and it would be fair to say that of all the types of personalisation that exist, implicit is the most involved to implement. You need to have a very good understanding of your visitor paths, and a clear understanding of what content you would like to drive to what path under which circumstances. Typically this is not something that is available to most web sites - so often implicit can only be deployed after a defined period of time has past where non managed routes through a website are monitored to be able to understand the free' path a user chooses and then determine how to manage that same experience.

However in spite of the overhead of managing it - done correctly implicit personalisation can provide a true high value return on investment - as demonstrated by the Amazon model. If it did not work they would have removed it long ago - but the fact is that it�s a very powerful way of getting users to see content you want them to see - which more importantly is still relevant to their behaviour - should be evidence of how high value the experience is to users.

Combining Explicit and Implicit Personalisation

It should not be understood from the above examples that the types of personalisation cannot be used in one user experience at the same time. Each type can be combined � so that a Passive Explicit Personalised Visitor may have implicit tracking applied to content in their own selected window of items - and a profile created for a group or user under Segmented Explicit Personalisation may also have further implicit tracking applied.

You might elect to implicitly track the behaviour of a user then when they get to a certain point invite them to create a passive explicit experience or register for an auto selected segmented explicit experience (based on their tracked clicks) - and store the implicit journey against the same login.

Adaptive Personalisation

Arguably, the overhead of managing and setting up the explicit and implicit personalisation logic has led to the emergence of so called 'Adapative Personalisation'. Unlike its predecessors, adaptive is essentially characterised by the fact that it does not require 'setting up'. Vendors such as Baynote who promote this type of technology would assert that the system itself takes care of the process of creating the logic required to determine which content to display.

Incremental behaviour of website users is analysed to model a 'user' or 'user type' and the system uses this knowledge gained to personalise content displayed automatically. This makes it extremely appealing to organisations who have the size of website and amount of content that would benefit from personalisation - but lack the inhouse resource to be able to deploy the more traditional types of personalised content.

Adapative personalisation also predicts the content and experience the customer is looking for before and during an interaction takes place. As a result rather than segments defined and then applied the adaptive method appies a continually evolving set of business rules that are self managed and evolve as the customers evolve or their patterns change.

As one of the limitations of segmentation is that you have to set up business logic for every segment or block of users you wish to target, adaptive allows a site to move away from content for the majority to content for the minority.

This technology is in its infancy but given its advantages it is sure to make headway into the WCMS space in the coming years.


Personalisation can provide a website with the compelling user experience that makes the difference between a website that is simply 'out there' and a website that gets bookmarked and revisited - and more importantly incentivises the visitor to complete actions that are considered to be of value by your organisation.

It can help your visitors maximise their experience whilst on your site and ensure they re-visit in a way that is simply not possible with a 'non personalised website'.

Is personalisation for every organisation? Probably not. If your website does not have enough content to personalise then there is little point in trying to fragment it into profiles or tracked experiences and change how content is diplayed as the technical and business overhead and cost of managing content in this fashion would simply outway the benefit - but if your site is large and you are struggling to ensure users get presented with appropriate content - then it would be one very powerful way to improve the user experience.