Say good-bye to one-size-fits-all content and advertising. The age of personalization is arriving in the digital media, and it will change everything about what we read, where we eat, what we buy and even how we get to work.

There is a race under way in Silicon Valley (and beyond) to do an ever-better job of tracking, archiving and analyzing consumer activity on desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart TVs and other interactive devices, so as to deliver increasingly customized user experiences.

From the tech giants to any number of start-ups, the stated goal of these activities is to improve consumer satisfaction. And that’s true, because user-specific content generates more frequent visits and longer dwell times than generic yadda-yadda.

But the real objective of the feverish development is to do a better job of targeting advertising to consumers based on who they are, where they are, what they say they like and–significantly–the additional actionable information that can be inferred from the digital breadcrumbs they leave behind.

The personalized delivery of content and advertising, of course, is the polar opposite of the monolithic digital products produced at most newspapers. To date, the industry has lacked the imagination, technical skill and capital to move toward the sophisticated, data-driven publishing models being developed by the digital powerhouses.

But there’s fresh hope that publishers can catch up, thanks to the acquisition of the Washington Post by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. More on that in a moment. First, the background:

The personalization process starts with the granular tracking of everyone’s movements as they ply the web. How granular? Here’s a taste of what Google knows about my activity in the last four years:

At 10:11 a.m. on June 19, 2010, I shopped at Walmart.Com for a Garmin navigation unit. I can’t recall if I bought it. At 11:52 a.m. on March 21, 2011, I searched for news about Justin Bieber, for reasons I am at a loss to explain. At 2:20 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2012, I watched a video of Mark Bittman preparing potato pancakes. The latkes were terrific. At 2:02 p.m. on Aug. 21, I grabbed a prized exit-row seat for an upcoming flight on United Airlines.

I am not sure what Google can make of these and the thousands of other searches meticulously recorded over the years. At this writing, Google might not, either. But you can rest assured that some of the brightest minds in the world are building complex algorithms to match my activities with other Garmin-Bieber-Bittman-United aficionados to see what I might do next. And, of course, what I might buy.

Search activity is only one of the dimensions being mined for marketing insights. Leveraging the largest compendium of self-published personal data in history, Facebook is monitoring, mapping and matching everything it knows about you with everything it knows about your friends, relatives, business associates and other acquaintances in your social network.

And the reason, as forthrightly–but ungrammatically–explained at the Facebook website, is this: “Everyone wants to know what their [sic] friends like. That’s why we pair ads and friends–an easy way to find products and services you’re interested in, based on what your friends share and like.”
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The third, and perhaps most revolutionary, dimension in personalization is your precise location. Whether you are looking for a burger, a bicycle or a barber, a search on a desktop browser or a smartphone map not only returns a list of nearby establishments but also includes user reviews, directions to the business and–no surprise–advertising.

State-of-the-art personalization systems on mobile devices don’t rely on you to report your whereabouts or your craving for a Frappuccino. By monitoring your calendar, the weather, your contact list, traffic, retail transactions and the other data persistently captured on your smartphone, tablet or (soon) Google Glass, these devices in the not-too-distant future will wake you early because it is raining, will recommend the fastest route around the wreck on the freeway and will have a prepaid “Frap” waiting at the nearest Starbuck’s.

As smart devices manage the logistics of your life, the information will be combined with your reading preferences, search patterns, social activity, shopping history and other data to feed you a steady stream of content and commercial information tuned to who you are, where you are and, increasingly, what you are likely to do next.

There’s no better example of the phenomenon than Amazon’s ability to recommend the right knives to go with a cookbook or the perfect accessories to outfit a new camera. With Jeff Bezos turning his attention–and a bit of his $25 billion fortune–to newspapering, he is bound to bring the power of personalization to the news biz. If other publishers are nice to him, maybe he will share what he knows.

Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who today serves as a strategic consultant to media and technology companies. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (www.newsosaur.blogspotcom).

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