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Personalisation is not just about Web sites and apps

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Hi there. This week I’m wrapping up the series on personalisation. I hope it’s given you a flavour of what’s possible in automation and personalisation, even if we’ve only skimmed the surface. 

There are so many branches to this conversation and this is not the last you will hear on it. Keep your eye out for a report we’re working on. And if you want to go deeper on passive personalisation, read this and follow my colleague Ariane Bernard’s work in the INMA Smart Data initiative

As always you can reach me at with any questions or comments. 

All the best, Jodie

Taking personalisation to the next level

Personalisation isn’t just about putting content in front of people on our Web sites and apps. It is how we market to people, what we advertise and sell, and how we deliver with different formats and across various platforms. 

Let’s look at a few of these examples:

Off-platform personalisation

One of the biggest drivers of habit is newsletters. Mailings have been personalised for years (remember mail merge?), but we can personalise a lot more than name and title.

One company that has had a great deal of success is the UK’s Financial Times. Their active personalisation gives users a myFT personalised e-mail. James Webb, product director, FT recently told us that: “Overall, myFT e-mails referred 6x more article reads than onsite sources.” I haven’t seen anything live yet, but I know some news organisations are looking at doing more with notifications in this vein. 


Through qualitative research, Nicole Dingess, head of product design at Gannett, found “younger consumers also expect flexibility in usage — to consume content with ease across channels (Web, app, to voice, etc.).”

In their studies, they found Amazon subscribers averaged four devices used to access their subscription, including smartwatches and smart speakers. News subscribers, on the other hand, averaged two devices used to access their subscription — their phone and their computer. 

I fundamentally believe this is something we need to look at. Kindle does this seamlessly, including where you left off and bookmarks/saved articles. And audio is a big bet for Norways’ Schibsted.


Spotify Wrapped shows songs and artists you’ve listened to, nicely illustrated as a graphic and ready to share across social media. Facebook and Instagram do your “Year In Review.” These are both fun and self serving, making the most of social networks. 

Spotify personalises the user experience by showing content the user has been listening to.
Spotify personalises the user experience by showing content the user has been listening to.

Instagram offers a "Year In Review" feature for users.
Instagram offers a "Year In Review" feature for users.

What can we do?

I noticed The New York Times sharing “story portraits” on Instagram (see image). Related, start-up Crux allows people to show they have built up knowledge on specific subjects. Perhaps this is the kind of thing that our users would love to share?

The New York Times offers "story portraits," summarising content a user has read.
The New York Times offers "story portraits," summarising content a user has read.

Content and formats

So far, the conversation is mostly around relevance to reader when it comes to content — and many organisations have been experimenting with headline and image personalisation. But we could get a lot more creative if we work closely with newsrooms. 

If we think about user needs at any given time, we’re likely to find it’s not just the subjects they are interested in. For example, one person may want top line information, another may want a long read on the subject. One person may prefer video, another text. One may prefer to scroll, another to swipe. One reader may want to go deep into hard news, another may need more breaks for levity (see the The Atlantic’s research on this).  

Riske Betten, head of product at Mediahuis in the Netherlands, found in initial tests that more video was served. It wasn’t served to a wider audience, but it was served more to people who liked video.  

Marketing, advertising, and non-content 

We shouldn’t forget advertising has been personalising for years.

The advertising I see used to was all about travel. Now it’s all about smart gadgets for small children. It’s remarkable how advertising knows me better than I do myself half the time.

Many of you probably personalise marketing based on cohorts such as subscribers vs. new readers. We can do this on a much more personal scale looking at which types of marketing, messages, and images work best for different people. We can start getting creative about how we talk to our audience at all touch points, not just the content itself.

A few big questions about personalisation remain

As an industry, we are in the early days of personalisation. Technology has come a long way, and there is likely still a long way to go. 

How much we invest now and in what remain big questions for media organisations. 

Is it worth putting a lot of investment into active personalisation for our products if only a percentage will take it up? Should you build your own or is the technology ready — or soon to be ready — for out-the-box use?

Media teams are still answering questions like how is personalisation measured.
Media teams are still answering questions like how is personalisation measured.

Below are a few other remaining questions we don’t have perfect answers for: 

How do we measure personalisation? 

Currently, tests are measured by click-through-rates (CTR) as that is the most instant, easily comparable metric. 

But we know CTR is not the best business metric overall as we often want engagement and retention. So how do we look at the more lagging metrics? 

A/B tests need to happen, but longer-term retention is hard to accurately predict. And there are so many other inputs that can affect the results, which makes it nigh on impossible to identify which markers had what effect.

NZZ in Switzerland noticed an uptick in completion rate, suggesting articles shown are more relevant. Perhaps we can also look at session lengths. 

How do we communicate to readers?

There is a level of hesitancy in telling users that we are personalising their content for them based on their behaviours and other inputs. It may even feel a little creepy to some. But most users are now used to it. Many expect it, especially those brought up with digital content streaming services. 

What is the right level of transparency with users to retain trust? 

Clearly with active personalisation, this isnt a question. But with passive, we need to balance explainers with making them too aware/worried about it. It makes sense to have an exampliner accessible that allows curious readers to learn more but doesn’t showcase it too much as a huge change they should be worried about. Here is an example explainer from The New York Times

To what extent do we balance user needs with business needs?

Most companies are just getting started and, rightly, focusing around user needs. We’re starting to see some optimisation for business goals such as Schibsted’s in-house algorithm and The Globe and Mails Sophi maximising to convert subscriptions. And there is a lot further we can go. 

Once people have registered, can we optimise to build daily habit? For those who are unlikely to subscribe, can we optimise for advertising? Perhaps this can be even more nuanced, prioritising more profitable formats such as video where we can.

As these algorithms get more sophisticated and we learn more about our audiences, there is much untapped potential.

Tweet of the week

If, like me, you have bought into personalisation for our users but you need to bring people onboard, perhaps this framework can help you. Communication is a huge part of product work, so I think there is something that everyone can learn from this thread.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.

This newsletter is a public face of the Product Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Jodie at with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Jodie Hopperton

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