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Philosophy Friday

Fun, blue sky type thinking to fill your weekend thoughts. This week we discuss "personalization."

I often miss my physical therapist, Jimmy.

I do not miss needing him.

But I miss having him guide my journey back to pain free mobility.

He was genuinely happy when I improved despite the implication that I may no longer require his services. His and my satisfaction become synergistic and self-reinforcing (and independent of future sales). I felt more taken care of and he enjoyed helping me.

Notice that I didn’t say that I miss physical therapy.

I miss Jimmy, and I would gladly pay a premium over local (and cheaper) PTs to continue the training with him if I didn’t have to drive 2 hours each way to get to him. Yet, I don’t seek new PTs near me. I just “know” that I won’t have that same connection.

I tell you this story to motivate a series of discussions around what we call product intimacy. I will discuss what it isn’t, namely “personalization.” I will then discuss with relation to B2C/CPG lens as well as B2B in later posts.


Personalization is not intimate.

In fact, it’s the quite opposite.

The way social media and other platforms achieve “personalization” is fundamentally no different than how previous industrial enterprises achieved scale. In fact, I claim it is exactly like those enterprises, only more so. This is because they refine and commodify both the user and the content whereas old enterprise only commodified the latter. The fact that videos, posts, reels about every imaginable topic including music, politics, comedy, spirituality, hate speech and calling it all “content” shown to “users” should be a clue.

However, where these platforms have innovated is their ability to segment users and tag content at unprecedented scale and granularity. It’s this granularity which gives some illusion of “personalization.” Let’s analyze this further.

Take those annoying social ads targeting your demographics. We see these ads with taglines such as “50-year-olds in New York City are doing this ONE thing.” To me, nothing could feel less personal or intimate. All that has been done is to associate the device I am using with my age and location, usually without asking me. Think about how you respond to that walking down the street. You'd be taken aback in the very least.

Social media and search platforms appear to be a more personal. Sites order posts and search results to maximize your engagement, that is, your time lingering on the site. Numerous studies have shown that engagement is driven on emotion implying that these platforms commodify your outrage and other extreme feelings and curate (i.e. tag) content that evokes those feelings. This has nothing to do with you as an individual, but instead, your commodified emotion. Think about this. Do you feel good after spending a lot of time on a social media platform?

What would I like to see changed? Here are some directions which I feel would lead to more product intimacy in these spaces:

  1. Digital advertising may be so far gone from intimacy that simply the removal of retargeting ads of products after I’ve completed the purchased would be a huge step forward.
  2. I would like to see social media and search provide more redirects out of outrage spirals. Someone who cared about me would not want me to just wallow in negative emotion so at some point some positive, or at least, less negative items could be surfaced for my attention. Or in the very least, when I turn to Dr. Google, it doesn’t just point me straight to cancer and maybe highlights the low absolute risks
  3. With recommendation engines, as with search, I would like to see more thoughtful redirects, like a friend who recommends a new movie to you outside of your preferred genre or subject matter. Netflix appears to be better at this, but likely because it is itself a content creator. Youtube has no such qualms of sending you down the rabbit hole, for good or for evil.

Before concluding, take a second to remember your favorite book, one that you can go back to repeatedly. Think about that connection the author made with you. They certainly didn’t write that book for you, yet the connection you have with that book is much greater than the sum of all personalized ads you’ve seen. Instead, they created a story that resonates with our common humanity making the most lasting impression.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll apply this concept to B2C/CPG and B2B spaces. In the meantime, here are some parting questions:

  1. Do you have instances where you knowingly (and gladly) you pay more for a comparable product?
  2. Is the current state inevitable? That is, does commercially efficient scale require abstraction and thus depersonalization at some level?