Twenty years ago, in early 1999, the HBR published a pioneering article on the future of personalization titled “Is your company ready for one-to-one marketing?”

Reading it is a flashback to the heady days of the dot-com era, with Amazon as case study number one. The article states:

“Relationship marketing is grounded in the idea of establishing a learning relationship with each customer, starting with your most valuable ones. Think of a learning relationship as one that gets smarter with each interaction. The customer tells you of some need, and you customize your product or service to meet it. Every interaction and modification improves your ability to fit your product to this particular customer.”

Today, the customer no longer has to “tell you of some need”, the machine learning personalization algorithms can figure that out. More than 80% of the TV shows and movies people watch on Netflix are discovered through the Netflix recommendation platform. When we think we are choosing what to watch on Netflix, we’re really just choosing from decisions made by their algorithm that increasingly and accurately predicts what we’ll like.

That approach to personalization is starting to spread to marketers everywhere. Evergage recently published a “2019 Trends in Personalization” report and found that usage among marketers of machine learning/algorithmic personalization is up from 26% last year to 40% this year.

“If marketing kept a diary, this would be it.”

– Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs

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They also found that 85% of marketers believe that their customers and prospects expect a personalized experience, but only 32% believe marketers are currently getting personalization right. Among marketers who use machine learning, 78% described personalization’s impact on customer relationships as “strong” or “extremely strong.”

As with so much marketing technology, we’re in an awkward adolescent period, where technology is increasingly making this 20-year old promise a reality. And yet, we’re working through the myriad unintended consequences of machine learning, and continually figuring out the line between cool and creepy.

Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years:

“Personalization” November 2014

“The Future of Advertising”, August 2013

“Marketing with Personal Data” May 2014


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