UP with People

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The Mozilla Labs team recently posted about a new personalization initiative for Firefox, which fits into the larger “Personalization with Respect”  aspiration that Jay Sullivan articulated in May. We want to give individuals more participation in their Web interactions so they can more easily get what they want, in a clearly defined way. This idea is gaining traction with leading publishers and marketers who see their craft as providing valuable, engaging and content-rich experiences to their audiences.

Our goal with UP (User Personalization) and other innovations in this area is to increase the quality of the user experience. In order to accomplish this, interactions must provide consumers with options on how much and which types of information to disclose in order to get the most relevant content and services on the Web. One recent example is The Guardian giving users the option to turn off coverage of the Royal Baby on their website. This encourages and allows them to participate in the content exchange based on their personal interests.

We also assume that nothing is really “free.” Good content has a “cost,” it doesn’t magically appear. The cost may be underwritten by ads or subscriptions, other innovative models, or it might come in the form of user interaction or engagement. Bad content also has a cost. It reduces engagement, CPMs,  and the overall value of the net. Poor user experiences that lack transparency also reduce engagement and diminish the value for all stakeholders.

We want this ecosystem of content creators and service providers to flourish at all levels. Best summed up by marketing guru, Jon Bond, “the value generated by the ‘net for both brands and publishers can be traced directly to the value of the user experience, and by enhancing that the economic power of the Web increases.”

The challenge is that today, the trade-off for users is often implicit and unclear, and few people really understand the value proposition behind the free content and services that they consume. The impression that there may be something not entirely above board happening to a user’s personal data comes from the lack of transparency in the current system. This can damage the essential trust between the consumer and publishers, brands and service providers. The real currency here is trust, not CPMs, or eyeballs, or click-throughs.

Our exploration into personalization is an attempt to help consumers get the most relevant content, at the right time, in a way that makes them feel comfortable by incorporating transparency and choice.

To test this proposition, we talked to a wide range of stakeholders including users, publishers, brands, ad tech providers, developers, and privacy advocates. The responses so far suggest that the ecosystem would welcome better intent and interest signals combined with active user participation.

Jean-Paul Schmetz, Chief Scientist at Hubert Burda Media, a major German publisher, said that “Mozilla’s proposed interests API gives us a clear signal of the user’s interests in a way that respects their privacy and choices, and we’re excited to test it out across the Burda network of websites.”

Terry Kawaja, creator of the famed LUMAscape, suggested “this could yield an alternative ecosystem powered by consumer preferences and conscious choices, versus one based on invisible tracking in which the consumer has no conscious choices.  It would also level the playing field by making interest and intent signals equally available to the digital supply ecosystem on the same terms.”

Jim Spanfeller, publisher of the TheDailyMeal.com and TheActiveTimes.com and the former IAB Chairman, said: “In many ways this will help move the idea of content and experience personalization radically forward in a very consumer-safe way, giving end users a better experience by facilitating the ability of content providers to shape their on-page offerings to the end users’ interests.”

Similarly, Dan Auerbach, Staff Technologist at EFF, thinks this is a welcome advance: “Projects like Mozilla’s User Personalization are a big step forward for re-designing personalization on the Web in a way that protects user privacy.”

While this is all good conceptually, there’s still much to be done. As the Labs post indicated, we are currently in an experimental phase and there are lots of assumptions that need to be tested. Upcoming tests will provide further insights and of course we will adjust over time. All in all, we think this is a promising solution to satisfy both individuals’ and publishers’ needs, in a way that creates a better, more transparent and more valuable Web experience.