This essay originally was published on September 2, 2021, with the email subject line CT No. 93: "Personalization problems: Inventory and Interpol."

Part 2 of 3 on personalization. Read part 1 and part 3.

Our personalities have as much variety as our fingerprints, and while we see common patterns among large groups within cultures, we're assured: no one group is exactly like another.

Perhaps because I'm properly steeped in American individualism, I expect brands that claim they're personalizing content to accurately reflect my preferences at some sort of individual level. It's the promise of digital delivery over mass communication: you don't have to blanket broadcast content to all people and can adjust to their preferences, niches and tastes. If all works as tech marketers have promised, right time, right channel, right place should be in our grasp.

When actually engineering and optimizing content for personalization, two major challenges arise. The first, familiar to all production and ad sales personnel: the inventory problem. The second, my personalized take on human taste that probably has a better name in some economic textbook: what I call the Interpol problem.

The inventory problem: More creation = more content investment

Marketers and publishers have been banging the segmentation drum for years, and segmentation technology is everywhere. Even open source little engine that could email/CMS software like Ghost offers methods to segment content through tagging. Audience segmentation, we are promised, enables us to reach all sorts of specialized groups as long as they're tagged correctly.

If you're a digital editor with experience in segmentation, I assume your stomach is churning at the thought of what I'm about to say: for every new segment your software can create, you've saddled yourself with an entirely separate experience to develop and populate with richly resonant content.

When users in one segment see completely different content from another segment, someone on the creative end has to create that wholly separate content experience. In my experience, for creative content teams that are already strapped for resources, segmentation is rarely accompanied by an increase in budget or staff.* Segmentation tech companies usually fail to mention how much content inventory their clients need to develop when selling their software to willing publishers and marketing teams.

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