Should passive personalisation be the standard for media?

By Ariane Bernard


New York, Paris


One of the three tentpole topics of the INMA Smart Data Initiative is personalisation — it’s also one of the modules for our master class next month. So I’ve been doing various interviews with publishers on the topic. A couple of weeks ago, one of them said to me (I paraphrase): “We’re not going to personalise everything because the newsroom knows better than the algorithm.”

With passive personalisation, the default experience is a personalised one.
With passive personalisation, the default experience is a personalised one.

This gets at the heart of one of the faultlines for how publishers have or haven’t embraced personalisation. 

There are areas where personalisation has unambiguously been present for quite some time: Our ads are usually, de-facto, personalised (née ad targeting). And for many publishers, Taboola or Outbrain are handling their recirculation area’s editorial links with a personalised organic selection — in addition to the widget’s role in presenting commercial content recommendations (Disclaimer: Yours truly used to work for Taboola).

There have also long been some products based on active personalisation. “My FT” from the Financial Times is one such product, where a user builds their own custom feed of content from the FT.  The aggregator app Flipboard introduced some personalised feeds features with some well-refined filtering for a user’s niche interests. 

Flipboard offers this "Personalize For You" feature for readers.
Flipboard offers this "Personalize For You" feature for readers.

But this is all done on an opt-in basis. And there is not a lot of agony over editorial personalisation as long as it’s a supplemental experience. These customised feeds have long been the province of small user groups, which are often very active and loyal. But because of the hurdle of requiring a user to put up with upfront “costs” of configuration, the real uplift of personalisation is in so-called “passive personalisation.” And one where the default experience is personalised — not a secondary experience that only a subset of users would know to use. 

So we come to this unease with a by-default experience of passively personalised editorial content selection: Personalisation seems to negate the notion of an editorial voice and editorial judgment. After all, the very notion of a judgment implies the taking of a position. If everyone sees and hears something different from a news organisation, what is its true voice? Or, put another way, in personalisation, where does editorial news judgment go?

Personalisation and editorial judgment aren’t antithetical (an interesting academic study from Digital Journalism in 2019 cross examines these feelings among European news publishers). But there are some aspects of how personalisation is often done that, indeed, set personalisation outcomes to reflect trends, or deep vertical interests, more than editorial notions of importance, diversity, or quality. 

To have personalisation algorithms that can reflect such notions of editorial quality, we have to think differently about the type of inputs that will go into these personalisation algorithms. 

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About Ariane Bernard

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