Personalization has been a buzzword in the world of marketing for decades. What started with simple rules-based segmentation bringing greater relevance to direct mail and email, has quickly become much more complex. With the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) now easily accessible, the opportunities for personalization across every channel have exploded exponentially. For many marketing leaders, the awesome power of personalization can be equal parts enticing and overwhelming.

Consumer expectations around relevance and recognition have been set by leading digital brands such as Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and Peloton. And this setting of expectations has caused consumer frustration when brands fall short. According to Salesforce research, 66% of customers expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations, but only 34% of brands say they deliver on treating consumers individually.

With so many touchpoints that can be personalized across a consumer journey and a plethora of solutions in the market to support personalization, it’s critical for businesses to take a structured approach to establish a foundation and build organizational muscle. Our actionable personalization strategy has helped many brands get started on their journey, quickly build capability, and deliver significant returns to the business.

1. Align the Organization

Determine your organization’s “why” for creating personalized experiences, get organizational buy-in and assign individuals responsible for the program’s success.

The first and most foundational step in building a personalization strategy is ensuring buy-in and alignment across the organization. There are often multiple groups within a company engaged on a personalization effort—digital marketing, technology, analytics and insights, and creative teams. Start by establishing clear objectives, roles, expectations and gaining an understanding of readiness by answering these key questions:

  • What key metrics do you hope personalization will influence?
  • What is personalization in service of? Determine your “why this matters” and ensure organizational alignment.
  • Who within the organization is responsible for or involved in this work?
  • Do I have enough data about my customers to develop starting use cases? Is it organized, structured, and reliable?
  • Do I have the right tool(s) to support personalization?

Begin by aligning the organization around building an attainable Proof of Concept (POC) to prove the value. Don’t worry so much about having all the answers or highly defined processes right away—those will be established and refined with time. As they say, the first step is always the hardest.

2. Identify and Prioritize Use Cases

Look at your customer journey and pinpoint influential moments that, if personalized, can make an impact.

Once you have organizational alignment, begin mapping the experience across your customer segments to identify opportunities. By stepping through the buying journey of each segment or personas of customers, you’ll quickly start identifying opportunities to make the experience more relevant. The areas of greatest initial opportunity typically fall in two areas:

  1. Stages throughout the buying journey or funnel with the highest levels of drop-off. By further optimizing these challenged touchpoints in the purchase process, companies can quickly see a direct impact on conversion rates. Ask yourself what information or insights aren’t your prospects or customers getting that they need to move forward in the buying process?
  2. Areas within the digital experience that have the highest volume of consumer impressions. These high visibility touchpoints (e.g., web pages, app screens, email or SMS communications) can have a significant impact on ROI given the sheer volume of users experiencing the content. Use your data to understand these high-traffic or visibility touchpoints.

Use a workshop or whiteboarding session to step through the buying journey and identify the biggest points of drop-off that have enough volume to make a meaningful impact. Don’t feel the need to boil the ocean to get started—a few good ideas can make a difference.

Once you’ve identified opportunities across the experience, define use cases with clear hypotheses to support your goals. As an example, a goal could be to decrease the time from initial site visit to conversion. Build a hypothesis to support that goal that can be validated with analytics and reporting once the personalization is implemented.

Use a simple prioritization framework, such as value vs. effort, MoSCoW (must have, should have, could have, won’t have), or RICE (Reach, Impact, Confidence, Effort) to prioritize use cases based on your goals and KPIs. Start by making sure you’re learning from your tests before moving on. Ask yourself: What are the highest value segments and highest priority use case cases that will drive value for the business? Putting emphasis on lower effort opportunities in the early stages of implementing personalization can allow you to get some quick wins and build muscle.

3. Design the Experience

Create content, tagging structures, data attributes, and journeys that enable the personalized experience. 

Once you’ve prioritized the personalization use cases, it’s time to identify the components that will create a tailored experience for consumers. This effort requires categorizing content, rigorous tagging, journey mapping, etc. The UX, creative and technical resources dedicated to this effort will play a significant role at this stage. The creation of the personalized experience involves two key components:

The DataCapturing signals that will drive the personalization.

Questions you should be asking:

  • What do we need to know about the customer or prospect to enable the use case?
  • What data do we need to capture about an individual moving through the experience to activate personalization (the signals)?
  • Where in the experience can we capture these signals (products, blogs, resources, services, etc.)?

A key output from this effort is the creation of a taxonomy—the process of tagging content to give the technology, and more importantly the marketer, the context of the content. This effort sets a strong foundation for scale, as the systems look at the tags, analyze how other users have acted on similar content that has been presented, and delivers a more tailored experience. While the process of tagging is an important step, don’t get bogged down in debates of minutia. The fundamental importance is that you’re starting to collect signals on your customer’s intent. You can update and evolve the signals as you gain real-world experience with your customer’s engagement.

The Content Identifying and mapping content that will be personalized.

Questions you should be asking:

  • What is the range of content we have today and how can we classify it into tags that represent content attributes? This could include messaging, images, offers, products, blog posts, etc.
  • What gaps do we have in our content based on the affinities of our customer groups and the tagging of our content?
  • Do we have significant gaps in areas of the customer journey?

By starting with the assets and content you already have and evaluating how they deliver on the tags and affinity groups developed in your taxonomy, you’ll be ready to begin personalizing content to individual customers. You can address your content gaps as you mature in your personalization efforts and get real marketplace experience on how your customers are engaging.

4. Activate

Build campaigns that execute personalized experiences.

Once you’ve designed the experience, it’s time to bring it to life. In this stage, you’ll use the taxonomy and content mappings to build the campaigns that create a personalized experience. You can begin slowly by creating experiences that are based on rules, or, depending on your skill sets and resources, you can rapidly introduce more sophisticated experiences that include machine learning-based recommendations and next best actions. To build out the experience leveraging your marketing automation and personalization platform(s):

  • Create necessary assets that can be leveraged across all channels.
  • Create Journeys with key decision points tailored to how an individual is interacting with your brand (channel engagement, purchases, preferences given, etc.).
  • Deploy site updates and social posts to support personalized content based on affinities and consumer behavior.
  • Set up proper tracking and control groups to enable thorough performance analysis. Create dashboards for visibility across the organization.

5. Optimize with Agility

Develop an agile operating model that allows for consistent releases and feedback loops.

Creating personalized experiences is never done. Our customers are real people with real lives and ever-changing tastes and intent. In order to stay relevant, you must consistently update your experiences and have direct 1:1 conversations with your customers and prospects. We’ve found that 90-day cycles work best within annual cycles. This method gives you frequent learnings without overwhelming the team with details. Within each cycle consider the following:

  • What previous learnings do you have?
  • What hypotheses do you want to start?
  • Are your use cases prioritized to bring the best value between business outcome and effort?
  • Communicate your wins (and your losses).

Building a personalized experience truly takes a village and you won’t be an expert overnight. You need a purposeful method to build your capabilities across the integrated team. You can build your capabilities internally by leveraging various training methods provided by software providers and your agency partners, or you can leverage your agency partner in an ongoing relationship, to help you drive your personalized experience business objectives.

The Takeaway

Everybody recognizes that a personalized experience is important. It’s ultimately an advantage that’s not easily replicated by competitors. The challenge is that few are doing it well because they lack the framework necessary to knock down the opportunity one chunk at a time. By following a proven iterative approach and engaging the right resources and partners, brands can deliver a better experience for customers and strong results for the business.