Guest column: Customised . . . in The My Decade

When Tom Wolfe coined the term "The Me Decade" in New York Magazine in 1976, he hit on a key attribute of the 70s: the sense of selfishness that defined the time.

Then we endured The Ugly 80s, which featured global political upheaval at centre stage accompanied by rapacious capitalism.

The next decade was decidedly different: The Networked 90s got everyone focused on being digitally connected and turned the word "internet" into an everyday term.

Now I don't know what the final two decades of the 20th century should really be named, but I think that the first decade of the new millennium will come to be called The My Decade.

Just think -- what is it that has come to characterise the expectations of consumers in the Aughts? (I settled on the term "Aughts" because the "Zeroes" doesn't sound right and the "Ohs" sounds wimpy.) The answer is personalisation -- "make it mine" (which from the vendor's side is "make it yours").

Over the past few years, consumers have been trained to expect that the world will be focused on their needs, wants and desires. It starts with hamburgers ("Have it your way") and progresses through news ("News your way") to travel ("Costa Rica your way") and books on gambling ("Gambling odds your way").

And then there's the Internet. "My Yahoo", "My Excite", "MyWay", "INKE.com - Shop Your Way!", "EZCD - Music your way" . . . the online "my" and "your" lists are endless. And guess what, for many people, this simplistic pitch of promised personalisation works -- they feel they are getting superior attention.

Many internet users now expect that wherever they go on the net they will find content and services that can be tailored to their needs and wants. Whether it be a general portal or the front end to buying cars, a "my-ified" customer interface is de rigueur if you want to be a serious online player.

Never mind that many of the "my" services are a sham that let the company behind the site get more personal details out of you in exchange for putting up a banner saying "Welcome Joe Smith".

But in some cases, the personalisation is real. "My CDNOW" for example really does improve your shopping experience (curiously, Amazon.com, which got into personalisation ages ago, has never added a "my" to the label).

So where The Me Decade was self-absorbed and narcissistic, The My Decade is about an expectation of quality service and distaste for being part of the hoi polloi (no matter if the solution is fiction). Of course, many of the online companies that promise personalised service will pay the price.

The "My shams" and "Your underachievers" that provide poor or false personalisation will become increasingly visible as standards rise and consumers develop more concrete expectations -- consumers won't settle for something that just looks like personalisation but has no real benefit. If you offer the ability to personalise your website, think carefully about whether you are ready for The My Decade.

That is, unless you're in the burger business. We've already reached the peak of burger personalidation.

Send your way to my way: nwcolumn@gibbs.com.

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