As a marketer, you are most likely used to thinking in terms of customer segments. Personalization takes the concept of segmentation to the next level—it is all about customizing content for each user of an application. In practical terms, you are trying to tailor a customer’s digital interactions based on your knowledge of that customer and his or her preferences.
Compared to other marketing activities, personalization is unique because it can help you improve both short-term and long-term business goals. For example, it can increase short-term goals such as email open rates and conversion rates, but it can also increase customer loyalty and lifetime value in the long term. Not surprisingly, digital marketers have pursued the holy grail of personalization for many years, but they face many challenges, particularly when trying to scale personalization globally.
Delivering customized content or experience is easier when the customer touchpoints are limited to one or two channels. But today’s customer interactions span multiple channels—be it web, mobile, social, or physical stores. Next, while customers may be providing you valuable clues about their preferences and intent through their online activity, it remains a Herculean task to come up with a 360-degree view of the customer, as data is locked up in several silo systems. Lastly, personalization is a complex and specialized domain, and some marketers may lack the technology expertise to implement it at the global level.
Whether you are just starting your personalization initiatives or looking to revamp your existing practices, here is a structured approach to guide you on your journey.
Step 1: Define Your Objectives and Strategy
It is easy to forget a simple truth, so it is worth repeating: Personalization is not an end in itself. There are larger business goals that you are looking to realize, and those objectives should drive your personalization strategy. For example, if you are a media site or publisher, you may be looking to increase the repeat visitors to the site or the time visitors spend on it. If you are a commerce website, perhaps you’d want to improve conversion metrics for the purchase sequence.
Ideally, you’d want to personalize and customize each step of the multichannel customer journey, but for many organizations, that may be too daunting initially. It’s better to prioritize and keep your scope to what is realistically achievable within a short time frame—think in quarters, not years. In the spirit of agile methodologies, keep the initial scope small, and subsequently expand as described in Step 5.
Step 2: Identify Personalization Opportunities
You should look at personalization from multiple angles. In this step, you want to establish the current state in order to identify gaps based on the objectives defined in the previous step.
Personalization can typically be applied to graphics, page elements, page content, promotional offers and discounts, search results, content/product recommendations, display of products in a catalog, and more. Personalization is not just confined to the site, but it is also applied to outbound marketing activities such as emails and campaigns. Some use cases will call for real-time processing based on user interactions. In other scenarios, personalization will be driven by previously defined business rules.
To decide what form your personalization implementation will take, start by looking at the available user data: who are your audiences, where do they come from, what do they do on your site, what are their preferences, what are different various pieces of information you have on them, and any other data that will help you build rich user profiles. Don’t only look at online data. User data that is in other enterprise systems is helpful. Assess if you are able to match online and offline data effectively.
Also look at competitor sites to get a feel for what others in your industry are doing. Identify gaps in your existing data that are preventing you from presenting your users with more personalized experiences. Assess whether third-party data providers can help you supplement the first-party data that you have.
Step 3: Implement the Best-Fit Tools
This is where the rubber hits the road. You’ll typically find that any large content or commerce site relies on several systems in the background. The major categories of systems include customer relationship management, commerce platforms, WCM, analytics tools, and marketing automation. Each of these systems will provide personalization capabilities of some sort, and you’ll also find specialist personalization and recommendation tools based on functional and business domains. By the way, these are just the experience-related systems; there are several other enterprise systems of record as well.
Many organizations find the complexity involved too overwhelming and end up implementing these tools in silos. You can tackle this challenge by mapping each system to specific tasks of the customer journey and enable the integrations and handoffs between the systems. It may be a complex task, but you need to orchestrate user flows across multiple integrated systems to deliver personalization at scale.
From a systems and tools perspective, with all the focus on end-user personalization, it is easy to forget that there are large internal teams of content creators, creative designers, and marketers who use these tools everyday (do not forget their usability requirements)which impact your overall scalability, as content needs to be updated seamlessly on a regular basis.
Step 4: Analyze Results and Fine-Tune
In theory, the personalization engines should get better as more and more user data is gathered. The advantage of defining clear objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs) in Step 1 is that you can easily measure results post-implementation. Often, you’ll find that some tweaks are necessary to your personalization rules.
Personalization requirements—such as approaches based on inferring intent and/or data mining or employing advanced artificial intelligence (AI)—can add system performance overheads. If there are any architecture or system scalability-related performance issues, they will also be flagged here since you may not see the needle moving as expected on engagement/conversion measures.
Step 5: Institutionalize and Industrialize
After you have ironed out the wrinkles, you are ready to revisit the scope and add a personalization layer to the activities, channels, and stages of the customer journey that are previously not included in scope. You want to incorporate the lessons learned, best practices, and reusable templates by developing formal playbooks that different teams can refer to as needed.
The state of the art in personalization changes as consumer expectations evolve and new technologies mature. In that sense, you’ll want to continuously improve your ability to achieve personalization at scale, globally.
As a strategy, personalization is a no-brainer because it leads to greater customer loyalty, improved customer retention, and competitive differentiation. Enterprises struggle to achieve personalization at scale because of trying to do too much all at once and the technical complexity involved. An agile and iterative approach that prioritizes personalization focus areas—based on business goals and implementing a best-of-breed technology stack that is well-integrated—can help you achieve personalization at scale.