A truly personalized online customer experience -- what essentially amounts to a custom website for every customer -- has been the Holy Grail of Marketing for over a decade.

After all, consider the great lengths web marketers go to in order to collect data about their website visitors, not to mention all the time they spend poring over it in effort to predict what their customers look like, what they want, and how to best give it to them. Now think about how little they actually do with this information.

This type of data -- this wealth of knowledge about customer preferences, behaviors, needs, wants, habits, patterns and so forth -- is at the root of personalization. It gives us the type of knowledge we used to spend tons of money on to extract from focus groups.

Only now, instead of group data, we have individual data. We know all of the above about each of our customers, which is exactly why and how we begin our journey toward totally personalized sites -- custom fit to each and every one of our customers.

Why the Focus on Personalization?

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Consumers have become highly skilled at comparison-shopping, or comparison-anything, really. While searching for the best deal once required serious effort -- driving from store to store, comparing catalogs, calling up several businesses for a price quote -- it’s an easy process now.

Now, with just a few clicks, they can typically (and quickly) find the best service, price or sale available. As a result, consumers are more fickle than ever and cultivating loyalty is a real challenge for e-Marketers. A challenge that can (and should) be address by personalization.

The problem is that personalization is currently the most under-utilized component of the trinity of marketing technology known collectively as Customer Experience Optimization (CXO). (The other two components are multivariate testing and multichannel marketing.)

CXO is the act and goal of tailoring your online visitors’ experiences to their individual needs and behaviors. CXO, in other words, is the means by which marketers will ultimately be able to offer their customers’ experiences so customized it will seem as though they’ve arrived at their own personal sites.

So What’s it Going to Take?

Remember the days when adding someone’s first name to your email marketing seemed the height of personalization? It’s almost quaint in its simplicity. Even rules-based targeting used to home in on certain segments, like time of day or geography, are becoming slightly archaic in practice.

The good news is, technology-wise, the tools do exist today to provide an individual, custom experience. But when it comes to technology -- or anything else with the potential to significantly improve our operations and revenue -- most of us are under-utilizing the tools already at hand. We often don’t realize that the only thing standing between us and exponentially better results are simple changes to our existing program.

But first let’s back up: how do you get to this point where providing a fully optimized experience for each individual can be reality?

1. Adopt a Testing Culture, Not Just a Testing Program

Up until about five or six years ago, only the most cutting edge marketers had dabbled in online testing and optimization strategies. Now it’s more mainstream and safe to assume that companies that sell online also have a dedicated testing program in place: whether internal or through a solution provider.

Because testing can be a cumbersome, narrowly focused and restricted process, however, most companies have yet to adopt a culture of testing. In other words, they do testing, but they don’t yet swear by it or see it as an integral part of their overall culture. This resistance limits the ultimate evolution of the customer’s experience.

Companies that grasp the cultural change that should come with a testing program will reap the biggest rewards from it. Because testing itself gives so much data insight into their consumers, their brand, their marketing success (and failures), championing for this to cause cultural shift can greatly benefit multiple departments: in store marketing, merchandising, direct mail, email, the list goes on. Companies that also make sure nothing ever goes on their site or in a store without first being tested, will ensure 100% optimization, 100% of the time.

2. Learn the Personalization Ropes

If I asked 10 marketers what personalization represents to them, I would most likely get at least five different responses.

Today, for the first time, personalization has moved beyond product recommendations; it’s now much more sophisticated and can be automated to provide insight at the individual visitor level for marketing departments. Segmentation and product recommendations are two of the best entry-level points to personalization and the most widely-employed (often in tandem) forms of website personalization.

You can begin by creating user profiles that allow you to segment visitors into basic groups, which will dictate visitors’ experience the moment they land on your site. Even the simplest categorizations allow for better customer engagement with content and offers that are more relevant.

Or you can apply meaningful product recommendations that help you sell, cross-sell and up-sell: “viewers who bought that, also bought this.” Or you can get even more sophisticated, with on-site behavioral targeting, by modeling what is the next best content to show an individual in real time. It’s all about what is the best fit for your business goals, and what you can devote time, resources and budget to.

3. Implement the Custom Customer Experience: Automated Behavioral Targeting

As mentioned, real-time personalized marketing is now a reality. And if you want to achieve the CXO trinity, it’s a must-do.

Using sophisticated mathematical modeling, automated behavioral targeting empowers you to present highly personalized offers, products and experiences to each individual website visitor. So, instead of presenting a set of five offers on your homepage in a tab or rotating manner, automated behavioral targeting dynamically presents content that will yield the highest conversion rates based on all the unique data you have for each visitor.

You will need the help of technology here, since it would take way more than the likes of Rain Man to come up with a set of rules that could effectively, and precisely, target your visitors with the right content.

Because behavioral targeting takes into account everything you know about your customer, including existing customer data, such as current products owned or a propensity score, it uses all this complex data to identify the best offer for each customer, and then adjusts over time to dynamically optimize visitor experiences with content that yields the highest conversion rate.

So as you might expect, making the most of this approach requires more than simply plugging a few pieces of information into a spreadsheet. You’ll need to let down your defenses about technology, and open your mind to the future.

Image courtesy of Eric Isselée (Shutterstock).

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