Personalizing Personalization: It’s About More Than Just Knowing Your User’s Name


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Article ImageContent personalization on the web is quickly becoming the standard. Amazon and Netflix have mastered it, presenting product or content suggestions so enticing it's as if the companies can perform black magic by reading consumers' minds. Research shows that personalized content done well can make websites more sticky and dramatically increase sales. But experts say that good content personalization is much harder than it looks. And yet, most customers seem to crave personalized content, and retailers see gold in the tactic, which means that its usage will only increase.

Something as simple as a personalized Google doodle on a site user's birthday can create excitement and a sense of loyalty to a company, says Amanda Elam, marketing director at EarthIntegrate, a Houston-based marketing firm, who was ecstatic when she saw her personalized doodle on her birthday.

"When you ask buyers what they want from their shopping experiences, they tell you they want to be recognized; they want to be valued; and they want to be known," says Penny Gillespie, a research director at Gartner, Inc. who focuses on electronic and mobile commerce. "And if they have purchased something from a seller, they believe they have a relationship with that seller, and that the seller should know them."

In a research note on personalizing the online shopping experience, Gillespie cited a couple of studies that show acceptance of personalization by retailers and consumers. According to a survey from Accenture, 64% of respondents prefer a personalized shopping experience over an anonymous one. And according to Internet Retailer, The Container Store found "that online shoppers who click on a recommendation spend, on average, 30% more than other customers. Moreover, open rates for e-mails with personalized product recommendations are two times higher than for the retailer's other e-mail marketing messages."

It's not only retailers that are embracing content personalization. So are some news sites, according to Jake DiMare, a digital strategist and senior project manager at ISITE Design and managing editor at CMS Myth, citing The Huffington Post as being particularly good at personalization, even if a viewer hasn't registered. "The Huffington Post is incredible at it," he says. "It seems like no two people have the same experience when they go to The Post. News websites like The Huffington Post are delivering content to you not only based on things like geography, but what you've looked at in the past."

He continues, "You're getting personalized information from The Huff Post if you've been there a few times. They're tracking what's called engagement analytics. Even if you're totally anonymous to them, they know who you are by [your] IP address, and they're going to pay attention to what you've looked at in the past and [create] an experience around that."

DiMare (whose ISITE clients include several Ivy League universities and smaller, liberal arts colleges) says that Amazon and The Huffington Post are light-years ahead of higher education in the use of content personalization. Most schools haven't even dabbled with personalization, and even the ones that have aren't nearly as sophisticated as Amazon or The Huffington Post, he says.

Retailers are discovering that mobile provides personalization options that aren't available on desktop or laptop computers. "Mobile brings the added dimension of context. I see mobile being used primarily two ways from a personalization perspective. One is to draw the customer into the brick-and-mortar store through recognizing proximity and extending an offer to entice them in," Gillespie says. "And the other way I'm seeing it used is for efficiency. Where maybe I have a shopping list on my mobile app, and I walk into the store-Walmart's been testing this-and now I'm directed to where the items on my shopping list are in the store."

As enticing as content personalization is for retailers and content publishers, the process can turn into an organizational train wreck unless all parties go into it with eyes wide open, DiMare says. "It's a lot of work and a big investment," he says. "If your organization can't support it and do a good job, then it could have a deleterious effect. If you can do it well, it's proven to have a positive effect on the revenue. If you can't do it well, I don't think it's a good idea."

DiMare says that the biggest obstacle to successfully implementing personalization is having enough (good) content to support it. It's one thing to have generic content that all users see, he says, but content producers need to create a great deal more once they start segmenting website visitors. The technology is not that difficult, as several vendors, including Drupal and Adobe, support personalization in their CMS offerings, DiMare says.

Retailers, content producers, and consumers desire personalization, yet experts say not every website should customize their visitors' experience. "I think the biggest risk facing sellers today is crossing the boundaries of being wise stewards of their customer data to potentially invading their privacy," Gillespie says. And that can lead to regulation, as Gillespie experienced during her time in the financial services industry when banks didn't properly protect customers' data.

Another strike against personalization is that "some people don't like the idea of websites tracking who they are or their behavior online," DiMare says. "So that's a bigger sort of public relations risk. I think it's possible to hedge that risk by being open and honest about what your privacy policies are, to be clear about what the value proposition is."

As personalization becomes more mainstream, Gillespie predicts that consumers will have a very low tolerance for content that is not personalized, especially on mobile devices. "Studies show that the personalized experience, showing content that resonates, increases customer satisfaction, loyalty, and sales," she says.

Like it or hate it, personalization appears to be here to stay. That's a good thing, DiMare says. "I like websites to know who I am," he adds. "I like my Android app that makes recommendations about what the traffic is like because it thinks I might be going home soon. Some people don't like that, but I see it as incredibly valuable."