Personalization, Meet Mass Customization

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Nov 05, 2003

I just keynoted the World Congress on Mass Customization and Personalization in Munich. It was wonderful to meet so many smart people, all thinking about the issues surrounding Mass Customization (MC) and personalization.

MC is a fast-growing trend. What is it? Practitioners include companies like Lands End, whose “Lands End Custom” will custom build clothing for your exact measurements and style preferences. Adidas has custom shoes, Levi's makes custom jeans, makes custom-tailored business shirts. Some at the conference predicted mass production will morph into mass customization quite rapidly. I don't agree. There will always be a need for mass-produced goods, especially where brand status and vanity items are concerned. I have plenty to say about mass customization as a concept, but I'm not sure readers are interested in the topic. If you are, would you send me an e-mail?

The other half of the conference concerned personalization, which is more about the one-on-one interaction with customers than about a customized final product. In my address, I proffered that a company in the business of mass customization must also offer a highly personalized Web experience to be successful. Why? Users want to have closer relationships with companies that customize products just for them.

The example I used to highlight this need was from a Web site I've mentioned before, I used this company last year to print full-color business cards for myself and my employees. Printing is one of the oldest forms of mass customization, and has all the hallmarks of a mass customization company:

  • It offers many products that can be user-customized.
  • It offers a choice between using design templates and starting from scratch.
  • It has an online configuration tool that lets you set specifications and choose options for the final product.
  • It produces the product and ships it directly from the factory.

But the site fails in personalization and customer relationship management (CRM). I ordered several cards last year for my employees, but the site considered each a separate job. The company is so product-centric (as many mass customizers are), it forgets to close the loop with the customer.

Mass customizers need to be at once product-centric and user-focused. I don't have a user account at No one does. The concept doesn't exist on the site. This means there's nowhere I can go to see how many cards I ordered before, what printing options I chose, or how much I paid. I can't simply request the company print me more cards. In the printing industry (or any industry that makes replenishable goods), this is a gross oversight.

One question raised at the conference was this: Customized products might be a differentiator now, but what happens when every company can make customized clothing, customized bags, etc.? What happens when customized products become a commodity? How will you differentiate?

I look to as a harbinger of those times. Printing business cards is, arguably, already a commodity. Every professional printer pretty much has the same printing capabilities. All the online printers have configuration tools that work more or less the same way. I have all the original files I sent to What's to stop me from sending them to another printer?

A personalized user experience with a good CRM system in place could be the answer. If kept my information on file, reminded me after nine months that it's easy to order reprints of my cards, and otherwise tried to sustain a relationship with me, I wouldn't be writing a column about them.

Too many mass customizers are content to say they offer personalized user experiences because their products are customized. There's a vast difference, however, between a personalized product and a personalized process. Real customer relationships are formed through interaction and by anticipating user needs, not by providing custom products.

Anyone know of a good printer?

  • Retail
  • Read next