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Personalization in 2019: The Imperative Remains

As someone who has worked in tech marketing for quite some time, I know we’ve been talking about personalization for a while. If you had asked me five years ago where the state of personalization would be in 2019, I would have said further than it is. Because while we’ve been talking about it a lot, very few of us have actually figured it out.

Getting it wrong hurts, but opting out isn’t an option

In fact, even the giants like Facebook are still making blunders. It’s bad enough when these blunders affect the bottom line. But while the day-to-day demands of doing our jobs well means we marketers are often focused on doing what’s needed to generate leads, move them through the funnel, or accomplish whatever our organization’s KPIs are, we can’t forget that at the end of the day we’re talking about human connections.

Take Gillian Brockel, for example. Maybe you saw her tweet, which went viral late last year:


I can’t do justice to her heart-wrenching story here (she does that herself), but the condensed version is this: After delivering her child stillborn, she continued to be targeted by companies with “personalized” offers for newborn-related products—each one a kick-to-the-stomach reminder of a tragedy we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy.

I bring up her story for one reason—there’s a lot at stake when it comes to personalization. But for those who, having heard this story, are tempted to opt out, that’s not an option. As a recent Salesforce report reveals, customers still demand personalization, and they’re willing to pay for it:

  • 84% of customers say it’s very important to be treated like a person, not a number

  • 70% of customers say it’s very important for companies to understand how they use products and services

  • 59% of customers want tailored engagement based on past interactions

  • And customers are 2.1x more likely to view personalized offers as important versus not

Companies that neglect this digital imperative won’t last. On the other hand, the companies that continually make personalization blunders will annoy their customers and, if the mistakes are as bad as the above, lose them. But what about the companies who get personalization right? They’ll not only drive increased sales, as the Salesforce report shows, but build true relationships.

It would require a great deal of finesse, but a company that could recognize someone like Brockell’s current state—a woman deeply grieving—and offer her a product or service that met her needs, would not only win a lifelong customer, and likely a lifelong advocate, but they would do something even more important: console a hurting human being.

Personalization is a journey

Which brings us back to personalization. Simply put, personalization is providing the most meaningful experience to each consumer at each touchpoint. When it comes to digital touchpoints, whether a website or Alexa, this means presenting the most relevant content at the most relevant time.

Personalization is an organizational mindset, powered by a coherent strategy. It is not a target to be hit and forgotten; it is continuous improvement, a journey with tangible business impact. It begins with the way you view your marketing practices, and it develops when you start practicing it each day. Eventually it becomes a habit. 

What’s the mindset? Understanding and empathy.

The recipient of a personalized experience is neither a machine, nor a segment—they’re a human. Hence understanding and empathy are as important as having a strategy. You need to understand your customers, map their journey, and triangulate this with how they use each touchpoint. You then need to have a system that’s smart enough to glean insight from their actions in real time and make that insight actionable almost immediately. And you need to have the right content to meet them at each moment of their journey.

The good news is that because personalization is a journey, you don’t have to get everything perfect before you embark. You can start even before you have all your content needs figured out, let alone all your assets completed. As you get to know your current and potential customers better, and test and learn, you may realize that you need different assets than you originally thought.  

There are, however, three things that will make beginning your personalization journey (or beginning it again) much easier:

  1. An appropriate and actionable data system

  2. The right technology

  3. A content supply chain

1. An appropriate and actionable data system

By an appropriate data system, I mean a system that can gather the required data from various sources, store it, and connect it, specifically to power personalization. To be clear, this is not all of your customer-related data, but a subset that’s relevant to personalization.

While it’s essential to collect, store, and analyze all your customer interaction data, you don’t need it all to deliver personalized experiences. For example, my bank has all my transaction history. But they don’t need my lifetime transactions history in their personalization platform. To deliver relevant and personalized offers to me they can simply use my credit and propensity score, derived from my transaction history, along with my, say, last five transaction details.

But an appropriate data system needs to go beyond collecting and storing the right data, it needs to make all of that data actionable.

Sitecore’s platform is able to connect data from virtually anywhere with the specific purpose of delivering personalized experiences. Our always-on machine learning begins building and refining individual profiles of each customer at their first interaction. Depending on the personalization program you implement, it even automates a lot of the actions that your data reveals to be necessary.

2. The right technology

Yes, having an appropriate and actionable data system is part of it, but the right technology includes more—it enables, empowers, catalyzes, and democratizes the personalization mindset. To be frank, it gets out of the way of marketers, allowing them to focus on delivering great experiences rather than on making the technology work. I could talk about Sitecore’s omnichannel capabilities or our partnerships with companies like Salesforce and Microsoft (and trust me I’d be happy to because I really love these!), but what I’m talking about in this context is personalization capabilities.

When it comes to personalization, our platform comes with many out-of-the-box rules. While marketers can use our simple click, slide, drag-and-drop interface to leverage our pattern recognition to segment users and target them, this is only one type of personalization. It’s also easy to personalize experiences based on users’ past behavior, such as goal conversions or downloads. And it’s simple to personalize based on users’ context—geolocation and time of day, for example. It also includes tools that help you better understand and report on the impact of specific personalization rules.

There are many more out-of-the-box rules and other personalization options on our platform, but the main point is that the right technology makes it easy to personalize setting up, delivering, understanding the impact of, and iterating on the types of personalized experiences you offer.

As we know after years of trying, personalization isn’t easy. But the right technology is technology that makes it easier, not more complicated.

3. A content supply chain

In closing, I want to discuss one last key success factor for personalization—content.

Again, creating the content needed for personalization is a process, and requires organizations, irrespective of their industry, to think of their content creation in terms of a content supply chain just like a media business does. On top of producing content—whether from scratch or re-purposed—marketing teams must store all assets in a system that’s intuitive and searchable, enables collaboration and iteration, and has the capacity to deliver across channels and at scale.

In case you haven’t heard, with our acquisition of Stylelabs—an integrated platform, which includes digital asset management (DAM), a marketing portal, marketing resource management (MRM), web to print, digital rights management (DRM), product information management (PIM), and machine learning that helps tag content—Sitecore’s platform now streamlines every part of the content lifecycle.

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