What does web personalization really take?

Whether you are considering a web personalization initiative, not sure if it’s the right thing to do, or worrying that you are behind—this snapshot of common challenges will help you to get started.

What’s all the hype about web personalization?

Web personalization is not a new concept—and design and marketing communities have been hard at work to make web personalization a reality for their clients. This is evidenced by personalization-enabled tools evolution and consolidation, growing client demand for personalized websites and strategies, and rising popularity of the personalization-related topics in industry conferences.

As segmentation, targeting, and data analytics tools continue to evolve in the context of digital marketing, demand for websites that can effectively deliver targeted content skyrockets as well.

Impressive statistics about the impact and ROI of web personalization efforts are certainly compelling. The elevator pitch itself seems like a no-brainer: in the digital realm full of noise, the ability to deliver more relevant content is a good thing, right? (Provided, that “creepiness” factor of hyper-targeting or misinterpreting user intent or data and serving them completely irrelevant experiences are adjusted for).

With such a seemingly obvious value proposition, are you too late to the game? The short answers: “no”—you are not too late, and “it depends”—whether it makes sense for your business.

What really ends up happening?

As a content strategist and experience designer, I got to work on a range of website personalization projects over the last five years—from microsites using custom developed rule-based personalization tools to enterprise-level solutions running on the top of the line personalization platforms. The common denominator across all of these projects was the struggle. And while the struggle was caused by very different reasons, it was certainly real.

I wanted to share some of the personalization realities to help you better understand what it really takes and prepare for what’s to come if you are going down the personalization route. Successful web personalization involves a lot of moving parts—and I believe that the best approach is to grow into it gradually while building the supporting practices around it.

Struggle #1: lack of personalization strategy

You’ll be surprised how often personalization efforts are driven by the wrong reasons, such as playing catch up because this is the thing everyone else is doing or because it’s trendy. I have seen companies invest in custom CMS development, enterprise-level million-dollar platforms, or elaborate machine learning algorithms—as well as taking sometimes as long as a year to re-platform the site—only to launch without any truly personalized content.

Personalization is not your strategy in itself; to make it work, you need a well-defined strategy for personalization, which is an integrated set of choices around a very specific objective. Integrated is key here, as your decisions will need to be supported and supportive of one another. These decisions should include what are you personalizing and why, what does this personalized content look like, who will produce it, how do we plan and manage that, what tools will we use, and how to implement and measure this—as well as the resources and skill sets that are required for this type of work.

The most important and by far the hardest part of it (that I feel is most often overlooked) is knowing with some level of certainty what content do your users need at a specific personalization moment.

Which means you should start with user research and testing before investing in planning, resources, and technology. That will help you determine realistic user segments and their needs. Once you know that, you’ll be able to understand better how to solve for those and whether web personalization is the right approach there.

Struggle #2: not fixing the basics first

Stop worrying about personalization debt—solve for UX, content, and technological debt first as they are the foundation of your website success. If you have fundamental issues with the site usability, design, content governance or system issues, personalization efforts will only exacerbate them.

This becomes particularly challenging in large organizations that have the need and the budget for complex enterprise-level tools and dedicated teams—where some of the stakeholders push for personalization tactics. Ironically, it’s often these organizations that don’t have a working digital governance process.

Before investing in sophisticated platforms, make sure to address these problems as well as ownership and workflow—otherwise justifying ROI and delivering on any personalization promises will fail.

Struggle #3: trying to do too much

This has something to do with both resources and understanding the impact. There are myriads of ways to personalize experience design and content: by segment, behavior, seasonality, campaign, weather, geo-location, a number of visits to the site, pages visited, content engaged with, industry—you name it. So often when we present these ideas to stakeholders and shape personalization strategies, we tend to get ambitious and are tempted to go for a combination of these things.

Aside from the main issue with knowing what content and features solve precisely for each user group and situation, an array of implementation and tracking challenges arise here.

Organizing and planning

How are we going to organize our thinking and what will this plan look like? Here is a sample scenario: imagine spreadsheeting a range of content options across five segments, three personalization factors, and any possible combination of it. Now imagine doing that planning for 500 landing pages. The amount of work required grows exponentially with each additional factor!

Content creation

Assuming we have a hypothesis as to what content our audiences need and have some idea of what “personalized” version of this content will look like—who will create this content?

Building it out in CMS

What will the implementation look like? Depending on your system, creating content rules and content variations can be mildly or extremely challenging. Even something like a variation in a call to action or order of content elements can become daunting if you have to create a version of it for five audiences across seven languages and 200 instances.

Tracking

How will we track it and how will we know what makes a difference and improves performance? With using multiple personalization factors, combined with ongoing content updates and maintenance and marketing campaigns—what do we attribute success or failure to?

Reporting

Who and how often will be reporting on it? This has to do with the team and measurement tools because believe me—multiple stakeholders would want regular reporting in a variety of formats on personalization initiatives (especially if—and likely it did—the project had high visibility, took a long time, and cost a fortune). Reporting is an important responsibility to keep in mind.

I recommend starting small and incrementally testing into personalization strategies to know what drives performance. This approach will also give you time to staff and advance your technology platform based on performance and actual needs.

The opposite side of this coin that is equally bad is doing too little. An example would be investing in expensive multi-million dollar platform and only personalizing one tiny thing or using an obscure segment—where we cannot prove impact or justify the investment.

Struggle #4: not having or using the right tools

Sadly, investment in expensive tools without proper strategy and setup and preliminary investigation of the system capabilities is still common. Personalization platform choice should start with the strategy, specific implementation vision, as well as understanding what tools are most appropriate for the industry you are in. So far, I haven’t worked with a tool without trade-offs—on the bright side personalization technologies are maturing and evolving all the time. Another thing to keep in mind is that this is not entirely on the platform providers—often it’s the wrong system choice or not utilizing advanced systems properly.

With personalization-enabled enterprise-level platforms, ensure you have an internal team that understands system capabilities, sets up segments and goals, and starts accumulating performance data as soon as possible. The strength of these platforms is usually maximized when utilizing the full toolkit it has to offer.

Also, do discuss your industry and use case intricacies and specifics of implementation vision with your solution architect early on. How much you’ll be able to get out of the platform will depend, for example, on whether you are in B2B vs consumer retail, or if you are planning to use the platform on the site with users that have a reason to come back frequently vs paid media landing pages designed for a one-time interaction. You also don’t want to go through re-platforming to find out that you cannot create rules on component level, that it is too time-consuming to create and maintain, or that you ending up with a ton of duplicate content issues as a result.

With smaller solution providers or custom designs, ensure that toolset is comprehensive enough to meet your goals—oftentimes functionality, components, or audience data or segmentation tools can be limited. And, not to beat on the dead horse, triple check that the system integrates with common analytics tools or has robust internal reporting capabilities.

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published May 7th 2019