The Prince Purple Rain Personalisation Paradox

Making personalisation feel real starts with real-life conversations. Here are a few personalisation tips from Acquia and ORM.

Last week I had the opportunity to present with Acquia partner ORM in London at an event called Personalisation in a Digital World. I co-presented at the event with ORM’s Leona Bell. She’s the head of Data & Analytics and helps support ORM clients with their growing data and optimisation needs. 

Leona and I talked about our recommended Crawl Walk Run 👶 🚶‍♂️🏃🏾‍♀️ approach to personalisation. There are lots of ways to get started with personalisation that don’t require an army of data scientists and petabytes of customer data. 


During the Q&A session at the event, we realized that there's a first step we missed. Most organizations aren’t even ready to crawl yet. They need to first wake up to the reality that personalisation isn’t just a “nice to have”; it's a mandate. Gartner says that over 80% of marketing leaders expect to be competing mostly or completely on the basis of customer experience. And personalisation is perhaps the best way to create the kinds of memorable breakthrough experiences that consumers demand.

But here we are, more than 25 years since the release of the first web browser and the birth of the consumer internet, and we're still stuck in the Stone Age of web personalisation. Email marketers are a little further along, but even they haven’t evolved much beyond that crawl phase of personalisation: Hello {user.FirstName}.

In real life, every interaction we have with someone is personal. It’s what makes us human. We speak to people using their names. We remember what we learn about people over time. We read and process body language to understand the context. But if we’re being honest we’re pretty terrible at applying this same thoughtfulness to digital interactions. Even though we technically know a lot about our users and have more data than ever, most digital experiences are still the equivalent of screaming “hey you!” to your close friends. 

And personalization doesn’t have to be hard. Really. Humans personalise conversations by asking questions. For example, “What’s your name?” “Where do you live?” “Do you have kids?” “What’s your favorite food?” 

To demonstrate this idea, during the presentation with ORM I asked Leona to tell me her favorite artist and song. Her answer: Prince’s Purple Rain. Excellent choice! Asking Leona this one simple question gave us the basis to have a far more personal conversation. I now know that Leona has excellent taste in music. I watched her eyes light up talking about Prince, and we immediately found common ground. As an aspiring guitarist, Prince was one of the very best guitarists in history and massively underrated.

Personalisation comes so easy in the real world, yet we continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that bringing humanity into digital just isn’t possible or is too hard. But is it? Take Spotify. When you first onboard, Spotify asks you to pick a few of your favorite artists. 

This lets Spotify immediately show artist content that you’ll be interested in to get users engaged with the service. Over time as you play more music, they use everything they learn about your musical tastes to create personalised playlists, including the amazing Discover Weekly mix. 

Spotify is obviously in the Run phase of the personalisation life cycle diagram above and they do have a massive team of data scientists building machine-learning models to deliver personalised playlists. But by starting with one simple question they were able to deliver tremendous value to their users. That’s exactly how we’d do it in the real world. 

That’s why I called this post The Prince Purple Rain Personalisation Paradox. For personalisation to be personal we need to act more like we do in real life. Imagine if instead of asking Leona to tell me her favorite artist, I just kept throwing out a bunch of random artists until I got lucky. That’s basically how we approach web personalisation today. We make a bunch of guesses about what we think the user should see instead of, you know, just asking the question we want to be answered. Asking a couple of simple questions gives us the context to deepen our digital relationship over time, letting us naturally evolve along the Crawl Walk Run personalisation journey. 

And with products like Acquia Personalization, implementing a website personalisation strategy is easier than ever before.

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