By Bob Boiko

Without some notion of who a person is, personalizing for that person isn’t possible. Who the people are that use your publications is the subject of your audience analysis. Some organizations personalize on an individual basis, bypassing audience segments all together. I believe that this approach doesn’t deliver nearly the value to the organization as personalizing by audience segments.

By using your audience analysis, you can come up with the set of traits and trait values that each audience type may exhibit. Each cluster of these traits is a user profile that you can collect, store, and access to decide what kind of person you’re dealing with.

Determining a user profile is one thing. Collecting trait values for each person who uses your publications is quite another. In pursuit of an audience trait, you really have only the following choices:

  • You can ask: The most reliable and straightforward way to find out about someone is to ask the person. Of course, this approach is also the most time-consuming and intrusive way to find out.
  • You can infer: Based on the actions that a person takes in your publication or based on other traits that you know the person has, you can make an educated guess on the value of related traits. Getting it wrong, however, is all too easy if you guess. Is the person who consistently goes to the children’s section of your site, for example, necessarily a child?
  • You can buy: Given a name and address, you can sometimes buy the trait values that you need for a person. Any number of sources of information about people are for sale. Moral issues (and you face many) aside, this method may or may not give you the specific traits that you need and may not prove very accurate on the traits that it does provide.

All in all, asking is still the best way to get good information. If you do decide to ask for information from your audience members, keep the following points in mind:

  • Trust: I wouldn’t give my name to someone I don’t trust. On the other hand, I’d tell just about anything to someone I do trust. Before you ask a question of a user, ask this question of your organization: “How does she know that she can trust us and what can we do to communicate that trust?”
  • Value: Users understand quite well that their information is of value to you. What do you give them in return? The value that you return doesn’t need to be monetary. In fact, if you work through your audience analysis in the way that I present it, you already know what value you can provide to each audience and are already thinking about how to communicate it to them.
  • Time and effort: Even if trust and value aren’t an issue for people, time and energy probably are. You can think of each question that a person must answer as a small barrier. If she perceives the barriers as small enough, the user hops over them and sees them as not much of an obstacle to progress. As soon as the barriers get too high to easily cross, however, they stop the user and frustrate her until she stops providing any information at all. Asking 10 questions on one page of a Web site that a user must answer before she can continue, for example, is more of a barrier than many people are willing to cross (unless the information on the other side is very valuable to them). One question on 10 pages that you disperse throughout the site makes up a smaller set of barriers that the user can “take in stride” as she moves through the site.
  • Context: If the user ever stops and asks, “Why are they asking me that?,” you haven’t done a good job of presenting the question. The user is at best confused and, at worst, is put off and refuses to answer. Make sure that you explain why you need the answer to the questions you ask or, better yet, position the questions in a context where an explanation isn’t necessary. If you ask for the user’s age on the home page of your site, for example, the question may seem out of context. But if you ask the user’s age on the page where you then select a set of songs for her, she understands why you want the data and is likely to report it more honestly.

Excerpted with permission from Chapter 22, “Designing Publications,” of “The Content Management Bible” by Bob Boiko (copyright HungryMinds Inc.). Visit Metatorial for more information on the Content Management Bible or Metatorial Services Inc.