Adding personalization to your website: Challenges & recommendations

Vice President, Marketing Science

October 05, 2017

Why Personalization? Despite the hype and challenges, it remains an accessible form of tailoring the online experience more precisely to users - from quick wins to longer-term strategies. The following notes were presented as discussion points at a customer forum and represent some broader ideas and questions that are helpful to consider when navigating the tricky world of website personalization.

Starting with the basics, I typically categorize personalization into three main categories:

Three categories of personalization

1. Contextual Personalization

This form of personalization uses known and contextual facts about an anonymous visitor, such as location, campaign, or referrer. These represent the quickest wins.

2. Behavioural Personalization

This type of personalization employs implicit, behaviour-based assumptions about an anonymous visitor, such as interest in a product area. This type of personalization provides an area of interesting opportunity when used with Sitecore's profiling and tagging capabilities. These capabilities allow us to understand anonymous visitors more deeply.

3. Explicit Personalization

This kind of personalization uses known facts about a visitor who has willingly self-identified, such as transactional history and demographics. This type of personalization helps to mitigate any potential feelings of wariness a user could experience related to personalization tactics in general.

The challenges of using personalization

Personalization challenge #1: Data

According to a Forrester study, most companies still don't have that "holy grail", a unified view of their customer. To add to the challenge, marketers use an average of 15 siloed data sources, resulting in inconsistent customer experiences. Without consistently accessible data that paints a full view of customer experience, it is difficult to target audience segments in a precise and effective way.

Personalization challenge #2: Team & process

You may find real challenges within your current team and processes. Your team may be limited in terms of size and training, and an entirely new process is required to produce personalized content within a working digital strategy. At one end of the spectrum, there are advanced companies like Nordstrom with a 16-person optimization team working on personalized content, user research and tracking. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many smaller marketing teams who work with limited resources.

Side effect: Underestimating personalization

Personalization turns your website into a multi-dimensional entity. This is important to fully consider, or you risk underestimating the scope and requirements for personalization to take place. These are some of the challenges that can arise:

  • Budgetary constraints
  • Headspace constraints
  • Difficulty switching to culture of optimization
  • Lack of ownership

Personalization challenge #3: Measurement

Measuring the failure or success of a personalization scheme is notoriously challenging. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • How do you know if a personalization rule is effective?
    • An example of a way to measure the effectiveness a personalization rule: Linking a variation display to a conversion
  • Must the rule be isolated to measure correlation?
  • How long should a rule be in place? What factors should cause a re-assessment?
  • How do analytics tools fit in?

Personalization challenge #4: Managing complexity

Once personalization is in place, maintaining a full view of the web experience becomes tricky as permutations of experience grow. Tracking rules, metrics, components and reports all contribute to creating that unified view of the web experience, and need to factor in different variations of content served to visitors.

Another challenge is that many platforms are still catching up, with many placing a heavy focus on instrumenting personalization rules via the user experience interface, and too light a focus on administration, reporting and management.

Lastly, striking a balance between personalized content and avoiding penalization from an SEO perspective is a challenge that must be addressed.

Opportunities and recommendations for personalization

Name your optimization lead

I recommend you assign a person the role of optimization lead whose responsibilities include implementing personalization strategy; I'll give a shout-out to John Berndt's definition of personalization architect here. Once that person has been designated, you must arm them for success with the resources they need. This includes providing them with the required team to support them across skillsets such as design, user experience and development. It's important to note that communication must be supported up the chain to ensure the effective execution of tactics and strategy.

Allow your personalization team to embrace the culture of optimization. In order to do this, you must allow them room to test, research and experiment outside of critical path marketing operations.

Pick your personalization angle

There are several different ways to approach personalization. Here are a few angles to think about.

Angle 1: Serve a distinct, valuable audience

Personalization is particularly effective when one site serves multiple business processes, particularly if the audience for one of these services is low volume by high value. An example of this might be high-value donors on a non-profit website or active alumni on a higher education website.

Equally effective is targeting an audience with a specific information need or motivation, such as returning customers or an audience with a specific emotional response to an offer (ie baby products).

Angle 2: Quick wins in direct response to business objectives

The Rotman School of Management had a business objective of increasing applications from international students in China, India and other key areas. We immediately focused on lifting engagement metrics for visitors from those areas by applying geography-based personalization rules. Visitors were served a customized landing page tailored to engaging prospects from those areas and promoting specific aspects of the programs and the Toronto area.

The result? We saw positive lifts across engagement KPIs including bounce rate, visit duration and pages per visit during the personalization campaign.

If you have a specific business objective, it is straightforward to tie your personalization campaign to these objectives and target the segment where you need to see a lift on conversions or engagement.

Angle 3: Campaign-based personalization

Campaign-based personalization allows you to nurture prospects along the conversion funnel.

In a case study showcasing a personalization campaign for Lincoln, predefined traits about a user are tracked, including location and familiarity with the brand (based on referring URLs). Visitors are then segmented into urban or rural, existing customer, prospective customer. Based on the segment there are in, the website displays special, targeted content including different features and car images.

The result? Significantly improved visitor engagement and stickiness: a 5.4% increase in signups and a 27% increase in gallery interactions.

Angle 4: Segment "lift"

The National Wildlife Federation had divided their audience into six personas - Parent/Caregiver, Educator, Green Lifestyles Enthusiast, Wildlife Enthusiast, Outdoor Enthusiast, and Policy Enthusiast. We profiled their content with these six categories to understand visitor behaviour more deeply, and found we had an opportunity to "lift" more passive segments to more active segments. For example, a Wildlife Enthusiast could be encouraged with targeted content to "Get Outside" and become an Outdoor Enthusiast.

This angle of personalization involves targeting a specific segment with content to drive more value or more revenue. It is especially helpful if your segments can be identified either explicitly with integrated CRM data or implicitly by virtue of online behaviour.

Draw boundaries around "personalization zones" within information architecture

It can be a challenge to track and administer personalized content on your website, regardless of underlying platform. It can be equally challenging to place your targeted content in an optimal area of the site, where it will best reach the intended audience.

We've found it helpful to designate a type of personalization funnel, whereby personalization techniques are deployed on a specific, small and manageable subset of pages where visitors first hit your website and building trust and inspiration is key. Prime candidates for this zone might include the homepage, section landing pages, campaign landing pages or high-ranking topical articles.

Hint: This also helps you separate manually managed pages where personalization rules are deployed, from larger volumes of automated pages where content may be generated dynamically.

Enrich personalization opportunities with more data

Most CMS platforms including Sitecore allow you to capture a wealth of additional information about an anonymous visitor. When a visitor arrives on a landing page via a Facebook dark post, for example, we are able to gather insight into certain things about them and their visit:

  • The campaign they came in from
  • They have started to build a specific profile
  • Their geographical location
  • Whether it is their first time to the site
  • The date and time of visit
  • Their level of engagement value to date

All of this information can be used to target content towards this visitor segment and its sub-segments. We can also enrich our ability to target by adding engagement value, content profiling and external data sources to the mix.

Encourage visitors to self-segment sooner

Getting your visitors to provide additional information about themselves sooner - and self-identify if possible - will enrich your opportunities for personalization. The EasyJet “inspire me” campaign is an example where encouraging users to self-identify proved successful. Requiring an email or login to access content helped to make the personalization possible and the outcome was incredible: conversions from the personalized email campaign quadrupled and the inclusion of personalized airports increased conversions by 60%.

Don't forget the implementation

Finally, the more you can track micro-interactions on your website, the more visitor behaviour can be distinguished and tracked. Common areas that need to be retrofitted for personalization are form submissions (can the conversion be tracked?) or micro-interactions that indicate engagement, such as filtering a list or scrolling down to the bottom of a blog article. Mapping our your personalization strategy early can help guide and justify these technical implementation decisions.

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