To personalize or not to personalize?

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The whole world is talking about how the power in digital channels has switched over from organizations to consumers. It’s The Age of the Customer as they call it. Humble and patient “Hopefully they’ll provide me what I need if I only search long enough” attitude has been turned upside-down. Now consumers are demanding “Give me everything I want! Right now!” and “only for me and exactly to my specific need”. People want better digital experiences and more relevancy. Suddenly everybody’s time is money.

North Patrol is a consulting firm specialized in the design of digital services and information systems. We shape ideas into a vision and service concept, find the best architectural and technological solutions, design a functional user experience, and compete to find the ideal partner for implementation work. We do not sell implementation projects, nor do we sell licenses; we are genuinely on the side of the customer.

18 May 2015

Mikko Jokela

I’ve written about this topic already about two years ago. Back then, I compared digital customer experience to a sales clerk in a clothing store. A professional sales clerk takes a brief glance at you and before she even walks to you and says “How are you doing?” she has already profiled you in her mind. She knows how to address you and what to suggest to you. We are so accustomed to this kind of behavior in face-to-face encounters that we take it for granted. We might even be offended if we don’t get the service we expect.

But the digital world is totally different. Or is it really?

One size doesn’t fit all

As far as I see it, the time of one size fits all is over.
We’ve been living in information overload for a long time now. For organizations, it is hard to reach customers when there are so many incentives around. Consumers are getting more and more selective. We are exposed to too much information every day and everybody hates irrelevant information. Pushing the same message to large masses is getting more ineffective. Therefore, if you present your products or services with a “take it or leave it” approach, the majority of your potential customers will decide to leave. Instead, you should try to provide a more personal and relevant experience to engage your potential customers.

I’m not even trying to cover the whole “unified-omnichannel-customer-experience-perfect-world” here. That’s way too difficult to achieve (and to summarize in one blog text). I’ll rather cover only a small fraction of this entirety that I think is important and accomplishable: Personalization.

Typical websites are static. The same content is served to every visitor and too often the sites focus on the publishing organization instead of the target audience. My opinion is that many organizations could and should do better. The experience would feel a whole lot personal with a couple of adjustments. I’m focusing on personalization for anonymous visitors here. Personalization for logged-in users is a totally different story.

A very brief glossary

A few words about personalization-related words and phrases. The terminology around personalization is constantly evolving and already quite extensive. To simplify the terminology as far as anonymous visitors are concerned, I narrow the personalization into two categories:

  • Fact-based personalization
  • Profile-based personalization

These are the two basic approaches to personalization, but they can also be combined in several ways.

Fact-based personalization

By fact-based personalization, I mean utilizing what we know about the visitor. Some examples:

  • Visitor has visited a certain page on our web site: This is a simple yes/no situation. If the visitor is searching for sights to see in London and reads a page about Madame Tussauds, show her a special offer about this destination. Or if the visitor clicks an “open vacancies” banner on your site and ends up on your recruiting page, show her slightly different content about your company and try to attract her to apply or contact you.
  • Visitor has entered the site from a certain campaign or a certain referring page: By identifying the exact campaign or referring page, we know what attracted the visitor to enter the site. If the campaign is related to TV sets, we can show the visitor the latest and finest models, maybe promote an offer and also show the contact information of a specialized retailer. Non-profit organizations can also use this kind of personalization. If the visitor is coming from a “Quit smoking” campaign, we can promote advice on how to quit or reduce smoking.

With campaigns, separate landing pages are often used. The problem with these is that too often the landing page is a totally separate page created only for this specific campaign. This page is most likely optimized for the main conversion (usually filling out a form). This, however, is not personalization. You could achieve even more if your whole site behaved based on the personal interest your visitor has already told you about.

Another example:

  • Visitor has filled out a form on our web site: When a visitor fills out a form on your site, this form info can be used for showing more relevant content. For example, the visitor’s home city can be used to promote specific store locations. You could even use the visitor’s name to address her in a more personal way. If a visitor fills out a form, she actually tells you quite a lot about herself. Not only the information entered in the form fields, but also that she is interested in your products or services.

These examples are just some possibilities of fact-based personalization. Besides these, you can use the visitor’s IP address, for example, to find out her location. Particularly with mobile devices, location information for personalization is essential.

Profile-based personalization

Profile-based personalization is a more sophisticated approach for targeting content, based on pre-configured profiles and the visitor’s behavior on the site. While the visitor is browsing the site, her behavior (basically every click) is tracked and this behavior is then matched to a profile. This, in a way, is an educated guess about the visitor’s interests.

An example of a car dealer’s website: An anonymous visitor is searching for used vehicles less than 3 years old, with a large cargo space and room for at least five passengers. He is also interested in the safety features of the vehicle. The visitor browses and compares several station wagons.

We have created a Family man profile in our system. We know—based on our customer database—that a typical buyer of these vehicles is a male about 40 years old who has a family with at least two children. When this profile is matched we offer him information and pictures of family vehicles rather than the latest sports car available, which is our default website content. We also promote the contact information of our sales representative specializing in station wagons. We might even inform the viewer about new automatic braking systems and promote our partner company that sells safety seats for children.

To take this fictitious example just a bit further, we recognize that the visitor shows a particular interest in vehicles located near a certain city. We could combine the Family man profile and the location information for personalization, and offer him dealer information around the area, at the same time promoting a test drive with our latest additional service: babysitting during the test drive.

Will this content targeting lead to sales? Who knows, but the chances are much better when we have been able to influence the buyer.

Technology is required, but not the point

There are several tools available for personalization. Some of the modern CMS tools have built-in personalization features. The range of these capabilities varies a lot. Third-party tools and customization can also be utilized.

Naturally, you need to have the tools to enable personalization, but when you have them in place, the technical setup is the easy part: Just configure some simple if-rules to enable fact-based personalization and see if your site begins to perform better. Before that, though, you have to go through the more difficult part: recognizing when to personalize and create content for personalization.

Why personalize? Not because it’s technically possible, but to create a more personal and relevant browsing experience to the end user. And why is that important? To make these visitors do what we want them to do. To increase conversion rates. To increase sales. To build a better customer relationship.

I know several cases in Finland where organizations are using modern CMS tools that enable personalization possibilities practically out-of-the-box, but for some reason are not using personalization at all. Maybe there’s still some kind of “creepiness factor” involved. It could also be that many organizational cultures aren’t ready for this kind of approach. Or whatever the excuse is.

Be bold in your personalization efforts. You can’t lose anything. You might even win.

Mikko Jokela

Mikko Jokela is an expert on web and digital business.

Mikko consults the customers on web platform and vendor selections, defining functional requirements, and especially on how digital channels could support business needs more effectively. His areas of expertise include utilizing web and digital channels for better business, and web technology selections.

Mikko has been working for IT vendors in several roles. He has been in charge of a business line, responsible for web business development and a consultant in several web projects. Mikko’s main focus has been in private sector customers but he has also work experience on education and public sector.

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