The Near Future of Mobile Personalization

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The most popular mobile media experiences — from Facebook and Instagram to YouTube and Pandora — are all powered by some form of personalization.  A new crop of apps are taking it up a notch, experimenting with “contextual awareness.” But in media circles, personalization has always been a bit of a bad word.

A history of broadcast

Until the Internet, media companies were all “broadcast” companies.  Content and experiences were created and distributed to audiences.  If you didn’t like it, you could turn the channel, flip the page or walk out of the theater.  The more something is consumed, the more likely you’d see more of it — or more of something similar.

That history has bred generations of media people who believe that we’re better at programming what audiences want to consume than the very individuals who make up that same audience.  For journalists, this belief is intensified by the idea that we’re better at knowing what people need to consume en masse.

Early days of personalization

When the Internet arrived, many media companies dipped their toes in the personalization waters. But the results were less that flattering.  People said they wanted to personalize, but when you gave them the opportunity, the overwhelming majority ignored the prompts and consumed whatever you put in front of them.

I remember in the old days of when were trying to entice people to localize the home page.  We even showed the weather conditions for a random location — I think at one point we picked Cleveland — as an experiment to see if people would type in their zip code.  It barely moved the needle.

One quick scan of media sites — even today — reveals that the vast majority of the real estate is programmed by editors and producers, not personalized by users.

As personal as it gets

With the advent of mobile, the traditional user barriers to personalization began to fall. From the early days of cell phones, people love personalizing their device with cases, ringtones and wallpapers.  As phones turned into smartphones, they became a natural extension of us — our photos, our music, our friends and our conversations.  They became extremely personal, and that expectation of personalization has pervaded the entire experience.

Facebook helped prove the use case and establish a behavior.  People understand that creating an account and “friending” people yields more relevant information. Today, just about every category-leading content app — Netflix, Yahoo Stocks, The Weather Channel, Google Maps/Waze, ESPN Sportscenter, and all the ones I mentioned above — are powered by some form of personalization.

And slowly but surely, more media apps are adding personalization features: Daily Beast and its “Nudge Engine” that suggests relevant stories, NPR One with Pandora-like features, and “one-tap following” to make a custom news feed in the new LA Times and Chicago Tribune apps.

Personalization as context

Don’t just think of personalization as just those old “enter your zip code” boxes.  That’s explicit personalization — you have to do something to improve your experience. Implicit personalization is informed by signals about you and your behavior, and that’s where the magic begins to happen.

Thanks to geolocation, Google Maps and Search are personalized out of the box, even if you don’t connect your Google account (but opt into location.) And whenever you log into an app with Facebook, it oftens draws from your profile and interests to begin to customize your experience without you explicitly having to tell it anything.

But these are just preliminary steps to the inevitable near future: contextual experiences that anticipate what you want and need — and when you need it — drawing from real-time signals, a rich history of data and some predictive math.  Technically, the term is “personal context awareness.”

For example, while I was writing this very newsletter, Google Now popped up a card that reminded me that I had a restaurant reservation in 28 minutes with a drive time of 23 minutes to get there — a five-minute warning to leave.  Sure enough, the time had escaped me, and Google Now was able to get me to the restaurant on time.  How did it know?  I made the reservation on OpenTable, which sent a confirmation email to my Gmail account, and Google Maps knew I was at home.

Creepy in a good way

As Apple and Google open up even more signals for developers to tap, context awareness is getting more sophisticated.  Status, for example, is a new app that creates automated status updates based on your location, movement and past behavior.  It can tell your friends that you’re doing things like driving, sleeping, running or biking (without the creepy details like your actual location.)

“Status was only possible due to Apple’s introduction of the Core Motion and Core Location frameworks, alongside the massive progress in sensor hardware,” wrote Status founder Kulveer Taggar in a Medium post. “Apps can now discover a user’s motion and work in the background without hurting the battery, with a high level of accuracy.”

(This is yet another reason why mobile apps aren’t going away anytime soon, but I digress.)

Steven is a similar “ambient awareness” app, created by Twitter’s former chief scientist, that uses emoji to automatically tell your friends what you’re doing.  I was surprised the other day when a coffee cup emoji popped up on the screen, correctly guessing that I was at Starbucks, in line for a mocha.

Context + content = ?

You’re probably beginning to imagine what this will mean for mobile content experiences.  Why broadcast the same thing to an amorphous audience when you can anticipate what each individual most likely wants and needs, at exactly the right time?

For some journalists, the idea that an algorithm dictates what people see makes them shiver. But algorithms and human judgment can work hand in hand, making information much more relevant and actionable than ever.  For example, at Breaking News, when a big news story breaks near your location, we’ll send you a notification that tells you what’s happening.  Editors determine the weight of the story.  The algorithm gets it to you.

This is why old reservations about personalization must be kicked to the curb.  It’s not just about spoon-feeding people what they want.  It’s about empowering them by surfacing the exact information that helps them make better decisions, brightening their mood at the right moments and saving them time along the way.

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