It’s no secret that customer experience is a big deal. Companies who are great at it win, those who fall short, lose. While we have the necessary data to improve that experience in ways that increase loyalty and drive sales, there’s a discrepancy between what shoppers want and what brands deliver.

At the core of that? Personalization. It’s essential to success as a digital brand, yet, while our dictionaries may have agreed on its meaning -- ”to design or tailor to meet an individual’s specifications, needs or preferences” -- things get far trickier out in the digital marketing world.

If you don’t tailor your brand experience to individual users, they may lose interest and shop elsewhere. But misplaced personalization efforts won't help your brand, either.

For example, a female colleague of mine recently received a promotional email from Banana Republic, with a link to a landing page of mens-only clothing. She was less than pleased with the user experience -- enough to question her loyalty to the company.

To avoid these scenarios, it’s essential to lock down what personalization looks like for your company and your customers. A recent study from Watermark Consulting (pdf) linked a strong focus on customer experience to higher revenue, improved customer acquisition and even a greater stock price. That’s a convincing case for going the extra mile with personalization.

So how can marketers get closer to grasping the shape-shifting definition of personalization and create the unforgettable, digitally driven experience that customers crave?

Define What Personalization Means to Your Audience

No one should know customers better than you do. Before moving forward with personalization, lay a foundation that’s true to that understanding. Do they want videos and inspirational stories, or do they want a straightforward experience that takes them from site visit to purchase as quickly as possible? There’s a high possibility those browsing a cosmetics site aren’t after the same user experience as Home Depot’s site visitors -- even if they’re the same person.

Laying the groundwork for a successful personalization strategy requires a strong understanding of the experiences that most resonate with users. Once this is in place, build on that knowledge and use the right tools to create a digital presence that first draws in shoppers with a top-notch experience, then keeps them coming back by making them feel like your number one customer.

Consider the Role of Context

Context is crucial to personalization -- one cannot exist without the other. Deliver content and advertising that goes beyond a basic understanding of a brand’s demographic, to reach individual customers and dive into the “where” and “how” of their shopping behavior. True personalization considers whether a user is shopping on his or her phone while commuting to work or browsing on a laptop at the end of the day. It also takes into account factors like a user’s location and purchase history, altering the experience accordingly.

Imagine you bought a 90-day supply of vitamins from Drugstore.com. When you check your email two and a half months later, there’s a reminder to reorder soon. And when you go to the site, those vitamins might be the first items you see on the homepage. That’s a truly contextualized shopping experience -- predicting the user’s needs at that specific moment in time.

Real loyalty-driving personalization isn’t an email that pushes the same deals to every mobile user. It isn’t an app that helps users build product wish lists, either. Though both of these are a step in the right direction, true personalization goes far beyond this, learning about each customer in a way that makes them feel like they’re one in a million, not just another person clicking their way through your site.

Put Existing Customer Data to Work

Achieving a personalized customer experience doesn’t always require starting from scratch. The answers hidden in existing data may be a priceless resource for marketers. If your current marketing strategy provides insights into customer interactions across multiple channels -- online, via mobile devices, on email and social media -- you’re already armed with a more holistic understanding of what makes your customers tick.

Use that data to gain a better understanding of your most engaged customer base and target those who are likely on the cusp of making a buying decision with deals that drive them to make that purchase. For example, if a shopper has had a pair of shoes sitting in her online cart for days, you could send an email with a coupon for 15 percent off a footwear purchase. That extra step could be the difference between securing or losing a sale.

A Change in Perspective

According to Forrester Research, three-quarters of the companies on today’s Global 500 list weren’t there 10 years ago. In just a decade, these companies replaced the brands that couldn’t keep up with the pace of digital change.

When it comes to digital transformation, we have two choices: continue on our existing path and hope to stay safe from the turnover, or embrace a world where competition for customers is fierce and the most personalized experience wins.​

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  rpongsaj