From tampons to toilet paper, from streaming services to fast-casual restaurants, consumers are presented with a breadth of options so large that they can make purchase decisions based not only on what product fits their needs, but on what best aligns with their belief system. It’s a reflection of a culture that champions the individual—and the idea that there’s a specific product for every personality. Perhaps the most inherent offshoot of this idea is hyper-personalization, which is by no means a recent trend, but certainly a persistent one. From supplement regimens tailored to specific health goals to hair care products formulated from an individual’s response to a series of questions, brands are keen on serving the illusion of bespoke offerings.
But where personalization was initially presented as a feature to help consumers differentiate themselves from others, it has evolved to become more of a service—the curation of options that an individual is likely to value. It’s not about serving a personalized product so much as a tailored experience. Brands are now using suggestions as a way to relieve choice paralysis—the phenomenon in which a person feels overwhelmed by the number of options available to them—and consumers are receptive to it.
It’s the next phase of personalized marketing—and it goes a few steps further than addressing a person by name in promotional emails. According to a Salesforce study, more than 63% of Millennials are willing to share their data with companies in exchange for offers and discounts specific to them.1 By analyzing user data, brands aren’t just predicting behavior but shaping it. Fashion retailer Topshop offers an online style quiz in which users answer questions about their wardrobe and, in exchange for providing their contact and demographic information, are presented with items that fit their style. Nordstrom offers a similar digital function, called Your Look, in which the more information a user provides, the more specific the recommendations will be. The result of which is, ideally, less time spent wading through the sea of options.
It’s the same idea as the “Top Picks for You” section on streaming platforms like Netflix. With millions of hours of content to choose from, the section predicts what a user will enjoy based on past behavior. The idea is to empower the viewer to make a decision that will satisfy his or her wants by providing curated options. Netflix took it a step further recently with a new movie, Bandersnatch, that allows the viewer to decide what happens to the main character, like a choose-your-own-adventure for the digital age. Based on the viewer’s choices, the movie ultimately leads to one of five main endings. The concept offers the illusion of control, but in reality, Netflix is merely facilitating the decision-making process for viewers, the same way they do with their viewing recommendations.
An overload of choices isn’t just prevalent in the entertainment and consumer goods spheres: thanks to the advent of dating apps, options for romantic relationships can seem similarly endless. One new app, Juliet, aims to change that by providing users with one match at a time. At the end of a predetermined time span (generally less than one week), each user will respond to a series of questions about their experience interacting with their match, and the app’s artificial intelligence will select someone who is a closer match for the next day. By lessening the impact of choice on the user’s end, Juliet aims to make app-based dating feel more intentional and personal.
There is a fine line to tread in this sphere. While consumers crave assistance in finding the best options, there is still a prevalent fear that tech companies mine too much information—many a science fiction film is based on the fear of machines making decisions for humans. Brands must ensure that the personalized options they are providing do not invade the privacy of consumers. Otherwise, the positive associations from the relief of choice paralysis may begin to feel like an assault on free will.