2014-10-November-Fake-Mustache.jpgPersonalization is critical to your business -- we can all agree on that. But when it comes to rolling up our proverbial sleeves and getting down to getting personal, the conversation veers into choppy waters. Why? It’s a simple enough notion.

Compare digital personalization tactics to the local corner store from decades ago. Remember the butcher who held the special cut of meat for a favorite customer? Or the clerk who knew I wanted the next comic book in the series? That was personalization in the pre-Internet days but, even though the landscape has changed dramatically, the rules really haven’t. We, as marketers, just have infinitely more to work with -- and even greater demands than a pound of sirloin.

One of the greatest hurdles today, it seems, isn't the existing customer who wants the same cut of meat, the same book or the same refill as last time: it’s the newcomer. How do you handle anonymous visitors? They enter your site, they browse, they make unexpected twists and turns as they work through content, products or services. And until they buy, they’re strangers ... right?

The majority of what happens online is anonymous. So how can you ensure spot-on relevance when you don’t even know your visitors’ names, let alone their goals and motivations? Just like the corner store clerk would: pay close attention, put your ear to the digital ground and maybe squint a little, and that anonymous visitor will likely start to resemble someone you've met before. Throw in the data you've got, even on the new visitors -- geolocation, what kind of device and browser they’re utilizing, time of day and more -- and a picture starts to emerge.

From that sometimes blurry image you can begin the segmentation process, defining criteria and automating delivery, tapping into self-learning algorithms that can move and grow with the visitor. Although that initial picture and user segment might not have all of the visitor’s precise features or be able to serve up the perfect recommendation from “go,” it’s a solid jumping off point, and one on which your relevance-driven relationship can expand and refine.

They’re Giving You Signals

You always know where your visitors are coming from and can always serve up something at least loosely relevant based on that information. Heavy rain in the Midwest? Rain boots for visitors from these cities. Late snowfall in the east? It’s not too late to snag that snow blower (that just happens to greet the visitor from Massachusetts). They’re on their tablets in New York City during the morning rush? Bet they’re commuting -- and bet they’d love an offer on something that can help them kill the time, be it a subscription offer or special video content.

Will they convert? Sometimes. Will they feel that pang of connectivity? Absolutely. Start there -- that pang is pretty powerful.

Tapping into an automation system will help steer your organization from here. Although you don’t know this particular visitor, your system knows someone similar and as the visitor continues the journey through your site, you’re collecting more and more and refining as you go. It’s now that the consumer profile, behavioral specifications, needs, wants and unique attributes begin to emerge, and the opportunity for relevance increases.

The more you know, the more well-aligned you can be -- and the more you advance that relationship by delivering greater personalization and strong relevance, the more you’ll build deep, meaningful loyalty and, in turn, garner even more data from both expressed preferences and observational metrics.

She Wants More

We’re in a relationship era of business, and this kind of always-on personalization and relevance is critical to maintaining and increasing share. Respondents in this year’s Adobe Digital Roadblock study identified personalization as the most critical capability to their organization’s future marketing success. Nearly seven in 10 went so far to say marketers must embrace hyper-personalization.

Time for another personalization analogy: it’s like you’re asking someone out on a date -- that’s the anonymous stage. Your job at this point is to learn all about your date. Try and surmise what she likes and what she doesn’t, along with what’s most likely to get her attention. Think of how electric it is when you get served up an offer on a site or via email that’s so perfect for you, whether you were looking for that Malbec, music download or vintage leather jacket or not. You’ll stop, you’ll look, you’ll consider, you’ll share and maybe you’ll convert -- but that “maybe” is a lot stronger than it would be if the email were for something completely off of your radar. And with each passing response -- or lack thereof -- purchase, browse or other visit, soak up everything you can about your customer. It’s the honeymoon period. She’s here, she’s happy and she’s got her mind on you. But you’ll have to invest in making sure the love affair continues.

Go Everywhere With Her

And what about tablet and mobile? She’s likely coming at you from different platforms and devices, and it’s critical you recognize her every time. And because she’s likely using different devices in different situations -- a desktop at work, for example, a smartphone on the train at night and a tablet while she’s relaxing post-dinner -- you’ll have the unique opportunity to garner more data than before. You’ll see her from every angle, potentially right from the beginning, and begin to understand the ins and outs of her day -- what she wants, when she wants it -- more clarity and precision than ever before.

Face it: most of your visitors are anonymous. But that doesn't mean unfamiliar. Just like the corner store clerk chats up a new shopper, or you try to woo that new relationship by learning what makes her tick, personalization starts from the minute the visitor enters your site. You know the basics -- where she’s coming from, in terms of device, platform and geolocation, and you've got info like time of day -- and can start to fill in the blanks based on user segments that align. You can really be relevant from that very first moment. And by delivering strong relevance from that initial interaction, you’re building loyalty, driving connectivity and gathering more and more critical data on the user. As her journey continues, you can keep the relevance alive, growing it more and more, deeper and deeper until the anonymous become the loyal.

Title image by sharyn morrow (Flickr) via a CC BY NC-ND 2.0 license