To personalize or not to personalize?

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.

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.onesize 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.

cars

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.

4 thoughts on “To personalize or not to personalize?

  1. Hello Mikko,

    personally I don’t like the term personalization so much (which proves, that this blog article has not been personalized for me – haha). We should focus on the goal (to provide relevant content) rather than emphasizing the method (personalization). Isn’t it completely irrelevant whether or not a site has been individualized for myself, as long as it is relevant to me? I feel you elegantly proved this point yourself by this quite interesting post, which is relevant to me, albeit not personalized (see above).

    I agree, that it’s fair to assume, that increasing the relevance will increase the conversion rate. But this is not for free – as in: free beer. While rule based personalization might come along with a high degree of automation, one still needs a human to set up the rules. Heavy personalization (as an end in itself?) might impact perfomance and even break the CMS’s architecture (as I tried to point out in a recent post for the J.Boye community http://jboye.com/blog/onion-net-stir-fry-in-oven/). It goes without saying that slow performance has a negative effect on the conversion rate. Thus, we needs to balance the effort and its effect. Once more, “one size fits all” is not the answer. Proper analytics and continous improvements might be the answer!

    Just my 0,02 €.

    Regards,
    Bernd

    • Hi Bernd,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I completely agree that achieving your goal is much more important than how you do it. Personalization is just one possibility to increase relevancy. And relevancy is what people want. Naturally performance is another thing that should be in place. And mobile design. All of these are part of the complete and pleasant user experience, and I guess that’s what it’s all about.

      On the other hand I’m trying to encourage organizations and implementation partners to take advantage of these kind of possibilities. Or at least consider them for real. It goes without saying that analytics and continuity are the cornerstones for this kind of approach.

      Check out also my previous blog post on challenges what it comes to digital marketing in practice.

      BR,
      Mikko

  2. Hi,

    As you pointed out, not having tailored content to personalize sites with is probably one of the most common obstacles for using this simple but effective capability. The same challenge often seems to apply to marketing automation and even conversion testing.

    I too am a firm believer in analytics. However, (non-predictive) analytics means looking at history data, making assumptions and decisions based on the data and then acting on them. This is fundamental to all websites with any goals. In addition to analytics, A/B/MV testing would be a good companion because it allows quick testing of ideas and hypotheses without the need for previous data.

    In the same sense, personalization can be used in conjunction with analytics and A/B to try out engagement paths without knowing _exactly_ what will work for each target group in each phase of the buying cycle. Behavioural data gathered for and used by profile-based personalization might even help an organization find new customer segments that they might not have known existed (e.g. families forced to buying another family wagon now but actually dreaming of the sports car and likely to buy it in the next 3 years). While it is of course a great possibility, it also puts quite a lot of pressure for creating tailored content for the varying content needs.

    However, I do not want to sound too theoretical. In its simplest form personalization is really simple. Making use of personalization tools should not be as hard as it often seems today. What it requires is a simple set of rules and a little content. The quickest way to start benefiting from it is to start small, with e.g. one segment and one engagement path.

    • Thanks for your contribution Rami!

      Testing is definitely one of the important methods for driving conversions and increasing relevancy. It’s practically impossible to cover all needs for all visitors, but as you emphasized: start small, learn, try to get a few quick wins, and then expand little by little. Don’t even try to be perfect right from the beginning.

      BR,
      Mikko

      P.S. Looking forward for your blog posts as well.

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