360 Degrees of Personalization

Yahoo 360 exemplifies the genius of the big websites in building audiences and expanding traffic to continue dominating the Internet. The stories written about 360 last week billed it as an experiment in social networking. But I think it’s more useful to consider it an attempt to push the frontiers of personalization.

According to the Associated Press report, “The service is designed to enable Yahoo’s 165 million registered users to pull content from the Web site’s discussion groups, online photo albums and review section to plug into their own Web logs, or blogs, the Internet shorthand used to describe online personal journals.”

Yahoo director of community products Paul Brody told MediaPost Publications last week, “users (will have) the choice to show as much or as little of their personalized content … as they like.”

Perhaps it’s splitting hairs to argue over whether this is social networking or personalization, and if it builds traffic then the name doesn’t matter. But the discussion may be instructive because other sites ( Topix for example) are taking a different approach to personalization by using algorithms to mold news to fit user tastes. I like the Yahoo way because it uses people to create small islands of content that lure others. In essence Yahoo is empowering a group of opinion leaders who will draw others.

This is not to say that algorithms won’t be useful at personalization — especially if you’re trying to build a business without the advantage of a Yahoo-sized user base. And the two techniques can be used together. But given the choice between algorithms or personal pages, the personal pages seem to have the built in advantage of coming with their own marketing agent — the person who will serve as editor to pull in a group of friends, family and associates, large or small.

Paid Content recently highlighted an ongoing Google experiment in personalization that follows the path of customizing the news to fit the beholder. That piece also pointed to an 18-month old interview with Google news director Krishna Bharat that offers insights into his thinking.

Call it customization, or social networking, but I think personalization is the new Holy Grail of media outfits from large wire services to cutting edge entertainers, like Major League Baseball. According to Mobile Content News, MLB’s advanced media division plans to announce a series of initiatives to deliver baseball action and ticket sales to phones. “The launch is on hold until geo-location services are in place that will allow MLB to implement blackouts where games are broadcast on local television.”

This is personalization by device and interest. There are some media people will choose to consume in larger volumes, provided it is convenient. Take music. As for information, I think people will choose to personalize by following trusted voices — Yahoo’s 360 is creating new set voices to inspire trust This will spill way past news areas like culture, sports and lifestyle.

Meanwhile, the last institution to jump on the bandwagon, whether it’s social networking or personalization, may be newspapers. Paid Content last week pointed to “A nice and comprehensive story ( in Online Journalism Review) on how news and newspaper sites are not utilizing the full potential of social networks.”

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media