Customization: Don't Bet Your Last Franc On It

PARIS (07/31/2000) - In retrospect, it was a foolhardy bet. But then Rafi Haladjian knows his readers.

Every three months, Haladjian, the chief executive officer of Fluxus, a business ISP (Internet service provider), writes the editorial column for his company's magazine. The articles are well-researched and often long -- the kind of thing that can take a fair chunk of time out of a CEO's working day.

The magazine, called Tilde, is sent to investors, clients, potential clients, lobbyists, journalists and analysts: in all, thousands of people.

While planning a special issue of the magazine about personalization technologies for Web sites, his editor bet him that he couldn't write a personalized editorial for every reader who requested one. You might expect his response to have been, "Not on your life! I've got a company to run."

But no. Haladjian rose to the challenge, and in the March issue of Tilde offered to write a made-to-measure editorial for every reader, dealing with a theme of their choosing. The offer, valid for one month, was open to anyone who sent him a request by e-mail.

Now, with all the editorials written and the e-mail sent, Haldjian's bet provides us with a kind of litmus test for the business of Internet personalization in France.

On English-speaking Web sites, content tailored for the individual is all the rage these days. For my online newspaper, I can pick and choose what kinds of news I'd like delivered, avoiding (as is my wont) anything to do with sport. I can even, if I'm feeling fussy, select how it is arranged on the page: cinema reviews on the left, perhaps, just under the weather report.

The online travel agency, meanwhile, will remember my flying habits, so that I don't have to select "Paris -- Charles de Gaulle" from the interminable pop-up departures menu every time. And I can even change the color scheme of my Yahoo mail page to match the case of my iMac. (What a pity it doesn't support the new Ruby Red shade yet.)The question is, do I really want all this personal attention? And more importantly for Haladjian -- if the CEO were to have any time left to run his company -- do the French want it?

Happily for Fluxus' shareholders, the French are not -- on the Web at least -- a nation of individualists. France's most-visited Web site, France Télécom's Wanadoo portal, follows the one-size-fits-all philosophy. In May, it was seen by half the country's Internet users, with almost 20 percent more visitors than its next nearest rival, according to market watcher MMXI Europe BV. Yet, in contrast to number-two site Yahoo, it makes no attempt at personalization. No customizable color scheme here. Wanadoo doesn't even use cookies.

In the face of this national indifference to one-to-one marketing, it will come as no surprise that Haladjian won his bet. He wrote a personalized editorial in response to every request he received -- of which there were just 13.

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