Let's Get Personal: The Basics

Personalization is as old as marketing itself. Give each customer what they want, how they want it, when they want it. New technologies, platforms, and devices give us the tools to reinvent this venerable approach, expanding its reach and effectiveness. To wring the maximum value out of personalization, you have to track your results, constantly re-evaluate what you are doing, and adjust your strategy accordingly. In Part One of this 5-part series on personalization, we'll start with the broad strokes.

Personalization: The Basics

At a "Future of Marketing" virtual conference a few years ago, Christa Carone, Xerox’s chief marketing officer, quoted the legendary Harvard Business School professor Ted Levitt, who was once asked what he thought the future of marketing would be like. “He replied that ‘the future of marketing will be more like the past than you could ever imagine,’ ” Carone said. “And he went on to explain that in the future, technology would enable us to have customer relationships like people used to have with their corner grocers.”

Carone said that Levitt was pointing to "the whole notion of personalized service … We all remember those local retail outlets where the people knew your name, understood what services or goods you were seeking."

Levitt's prescient insight seems to be coming true: for all the technological innovations we've witnessed in the last twenty years, personalization remains at the forefront of marketing innovation, with an impact that extends well beyond just retail and commerce.

Just ask Barack Obama, or more realistically, the digital director of his 2012 presidential campaign, Teddy Goff.

When pressed for campaign secrets by a blogger for digital marketer HubSpot, Goff pointed to personalization:

"We consistently found that people wanted to get a sense from the campaign that we knew who they were and what they'd done for us in the past. Something as simple as dropping in a line like: 'You've volunteered before; thank you. Now take the next step and become a donor,' into a fundraising email to non-donor volunteers, had a huge impact on results."

A few months later, when Yahoo's new chief executive officer Marissa Mayer spoke at the Davos Economic Forum, she said one of the company's highest priorities was working on technology that would personalize content from the Web and deliver it to people on their mobile devices.

These examples are valuable reminders of how fundamental personalization really is. This is particularly important to keep in mind today, as many companies, large and small, struggle to implement a personalization strategy.

A new report, The Realities of Online Personalization by the research firm Econsultancy, in association with Monetate, highlights the challenges. Based on a survey of more than 1,100 digital and ecommerce professionals, the report found that the vast majority of responding companies (94 percent) agreed that "personalization of the web experience is critical to current and future success."

For those responding companies who are already personalizing web experiences, and who are also able to quantify the improvement, the gains are impressive: They are seeing, on average, a 19 percent uplift in sales, according to the survey, which translates into "hundreds of millions of dollars of additional sales for online businesses across a range of business sectors."

Yet the study also found that in many cases, "the reality of personalization was harder than the dream."

While personalization is very much on the agenda for many marketers, the report's survey found that "most are stuck in the slow lane when it comes to implementation." More than half (56%) of companies admitted that they were not personalizing the web experience for visitors. Only four percent said that the experience they offered their customers was "very" personalized.

Why are so many company personalization efforts stalled, or still in first gear? Just under three-quarters (72%) of marketers said that while they understood the importance of personalization, they just didn't know where to start and how to approach it.

Among the major barriers: "IT roadblocks," "legacy technology," and "scarce technical resources."

Yes, it's easy to get overwhelmed by personalization, particularly these days when personal data has morphed with Big Data. Tidal waves of information about your online visitors are now crashing on the shores of your website, which can be intimidating.

But before you allow yourself to be swept away by merging databases, here's one encouraging idea to keep in mind.

You don't have to wait to get started

Many marketers assume that implementing a personalization strategy requires reams of personal data. This is not true. You probably already have enough information in-house to get going.

photo of Linus Gregoriadis
Linus Gregoriadis,
Research Director, Econsultancy

Valuable personalization benefits can be harnessed from signals that are already available from your own site.

According to Econsultancy Research Director Linus Gregoriadis: “The technology now available means that companies can now scale their personalization efforts in a way which wasn’t previously possible in the offline world, not only for existing customers but also for new visitors to their web properties, based on implicit information. Companies can of course do sophisticated integration with CRM systems, but there are quicker wins available by using a plethora of other signals.”

Some of this easily accessible data includes:

Geotargeting: What is the location of the visitor's IP address? If it's Miami, don't lead with winter coats.

Page views: What pages is the visitor accessing? Is he a return visitor? Your site's logs will tell you.

Searches: When a visitor searches for something on your site, he's telling you a lot about himself.

Downloads: Has a user downloaded a free ebook from your site? On what subject? That's valuable information.

Traffic source: Did the visitor come from a competitor site? Might be time for a special offer, maybe free shipping.

These first-level sorts aren't going to generate detailed, individual portraits of each and every visitor, but they will help you generate profiles that will allow you to start segmenting your users -- a quick start for personalization.

Recently when the health insurance provider Humana launched a new website, it was able to give visitors a personalized experience through the deft use of profiles and segmentation. By closely tracking what kind of content visitors clicked, Humana was able to determine whether a user was a retiree interested in researching benefits, or a mother who's primary concern was raising a young family. As Humana built up these two profiles, and others like them, they were able to deliver content, and highlight services, that were targeted at each group.

An additional strength of this approach is that this profiling can be progressive, enabling a website to build and refine segmentation as it gets more data from its visitors.

The result: a more personalized experience for the users.

Next: Personalization and Privacy

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