There was a time that personalization was more of an aspiration than a reality. Most retailers didn't have the data, business processes or tools to deliver a personalized shopping experience. Personalization was largely site-based and, in its simplest form, leveraged customer demographics and purchase history to inform the next purchase.
In earlier stages, personalization was often mistaken for different advances in customization or segmentation. As personalization matures, so have its applications across the marketing ecosystem. Advanced-level data sources, including third-party data, have enhanced retailers’ ability to deliver personalized messages. Tools and algorithms have also evolved to enable a more progressed form of personalization across search, display, email, site, mobile and paid social.
Yet, for all these advances, the human element is still missing.
Consider how this plays out in a scenario with which we are all too familiar: I'm interested in a pair of running shoes. I search for shoes and look at several shoes on runningshoes.com, but don’t buy. I'm now the recipient of endless retargeting ads across the digital ecosystem. I end up purchasing a pair of sneakers, perhaps not the ones that I initially considered, yet personalization hasn't caught up. Runningshoes.com still re-enforces the same message — I'm still receiving the same ads for sneakers on Amazon.com, as well as other sites, and the redundant email communications that I receive are completely disconnected.
Personalization purports to “know me.” How do we move this relationship from the purely functional towards the emotional continuum — beyond predicting what I'm likely to buy next — to building a stronger brand attachment based on interests and needs?
Go Beyond Simple Data
- With personalization, companies should move to leverage more than demographic and transactional data, and consider interaction, behavioral and even motivational data.
- Recognize that data brings a wealth of insight beyond next purchase. Understanding implicit behaviors can be predictive of intent.
- Have well-defined personalized experiences for both customers and prospects. No one is truly unknown anymore. With the ease of access to first-, second- and third-party data, a company has a host of information for both customers and prospects.
Make Use of Advances in Automation and Decision Engines
- The orchestration of marketing communications, with so many channels, requires another level of automation. Today, orchestration is managed partially by self-learning algorithmic decision engines that are reliant upon first-, second- and third-party data to fully understand both customers and prospects.
- Modular content has become the cornerstone for digital channels. Content management systems provide the means to dynamically compile modular content into a meaningful message. This enables the copy, creative and call to action to change on an individual-by-individual basis, at each juncture in the consumer decision journey.
Assess Your Content Strategy and Determine Where the Gaps Are Along the Consumer Decision Journey
- Personalize each stage of the journey — not just the beginning and the end. From the very beginning of general awareness through consideration and intent, the context of interactions should change accordingly.
- Delivery of personalized experiences requires knowing both the when and where. When should the experience take place, and where (i.e., channel) the experience should occur.
- Understand the mind-set of the customer and apply a content lens that's appropriate to where the consumer is in the decision journey. How they approach their search, how they navigate the site and how they respond to different messages can speak volumes. Educational, purchase, post-purchase and service content all play a critical role.
Integrate the Customer Experience so That Individual Actions in One Channel Inform Other Channels
- Ensure there's a “connected” experience across channels and platforms that learns and applies that learning to enable a relevant and satisfying experience. This experience may be a hybrid personalization of both human and connected technology.
- Personalization is best when customers define their own level of engagement and topics of interest. Retailers need to embrace the notion of customers selecting their own communication rhythm and interest levels. Gone are the days of defining the conversation.
Create Relevant and Rewarding Experiences by Using Data in a Respectful Manner
- Personalization should be respectful, not disturbing. Nothing seems more sinister than displaying information about an individual that they didn't disclose to you. While you may have far more information about a customer than they will ever realize, you shouldn't always use all of that information in delivering personalized experiences.
- Personalization is expected. In today’s digital world, people have accepted the benefits of always being connected. This acceptance quickly translates into expectations. From search to shopping and watching videos, the customer expects a personalized experience — i.e., information that's relevant to them and instantly at their fingertips.
Bringing together data, tools, content and a connected consumer experience isn’t easy. Personalization continues to evolve technologically, with the perpetual challenge remaining to capture the human element.
Susan Boland is senior vice president, strategy, retail practice at Merkle, a performance marketing agency that specializes in data-based marketing solutions. Zimm Zimmerman is vice president, personalization, at Merkle.
Related story: How VF Corp. is Winning With Personalization