There is a lot of buzz going on around personalization in the online world -- how to use it, does it matter, won't the visitor be suspicious, etc. From where I stand, personalization matters. Here's why.

Offline Personalization is Essential and Normal

In the offline world, personalization is everywhere. If I go shopping for clothes and enter a store I have never visited before the sales clerk will immediately analyze and segment me, according to parameters like:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • What I'm wearing (suite vs. casual clothes)
  • Style (beard, hair, watch, etc.)
  • Brands I'm wearing

Say I'm 33, male, wearing jeans (Hugo Boss), shirt (Eton) and brown leather shoes (Lloyds) -- the Clerk will show me clothes which match the brands I’m wearing and my style. Perhaps the clerk will try to up-sell to other more expensive brands, like Armani, but he wouldn't go for "cheaper" brands.

If I buy a new pair of shoes and return a few days later, the sales person will probably remember me and ask about the shoes (showing an interest in me). He could then try to sell me a belt, which matches the shoes -- and he would probably succeed. One thing is fairly certain: He would probably not try to sell me the shoes I'd already bought!

What could the business objectives be at the clothes shop? I'd guess it is to get maximum revenues with a focus on customer satisfaction, low return rates and high repeat purchase rates.

How do they deliver that? They prioritize the delivery of relevant, accurate information and in doing so they build trust relationships with their clients.

Taking a Page From the Offline World

The online/interactive world can learn a lot from the offline world. Today even though we write 2010 as the calendar year, many websites are still so nineties -- showing the same content to all the visitors, promoting products visitors have already bought (if it's e-commerce) or pushing newsletters customers have already signed up for.

The content might be dynamic, but the experience is static! And this static approach to delivering content is probably why conversion rates are so low on many sites.

Why is that? Many have not done a good job of optimizing their online presence in light of their business objectives. 

Instead the focus has been on redesign, user experience, SEO, etc. These things are not bad, but the main question, "What business goals can our website help us achieve?", often slips too far into the background, while the budget is progressively consumed by redesign process.

In this scenario, you might end up with a prettier, more user friendly, more SEO optimized website. But has the site's ability to achieve primary business objectives really changed? In fact, if you compare your online presence today to your online presence in the nineties, what is the difference besides the visual design, jQuery effects, user experience and SEO?

If you're depressed by the answer to that question, it's time to step back and re-think how you are running your online presence.

Base Your Website on Your Business Objectives

What I hope is that you don't see too much of yourself in the above scenario. Regardless, both the interactive space and your business objectives are constantly evolving. We all must continue to ask the question: "What business goals can our website help us achieve?"

And if your desired outcome is to increase revenue, your conversation with yourself might go something like this:

  • "How do we increase our revenues?" -- We sell more of our services or products.
  • "How do we do that?" -- We tailor our online presence around our visitors needs and behavior.
  • "What the heck do you mean by that?" -- Our visitors have different behaviors, sometimes they are just looking at our goods, sometimes they are gathering information in order to be confirmed that their choice is right, and hopefully they end up buying our goods! If we sense and adapt to their behaviors, we can focus on getting the visitor with the “looking” behavior signed up for a newsletter, so we can start a dialog early. We can show content, like customer reviews, shipping details, etc. to the visitor who is confirming facts and building trust. For the visitor with the buying behavior, we make it easy with “Buy Now!” Calls to Action (CTAs), building trust and providing offers according to their interest.
  • "Isn't that difficult?" -- We have to know our different segments, their behaviors, how they search and why they buy. And then we can tailor the content and Calls to Action for the specific target groups according to their specific behavior.
  • "Doesn't that take time?" -- Yes. It takes more time than managing a static website, but training sales clerks to work well with customers also takes time. The benefits of the outcome must be kept in mind. And the people approving the budget must clearly understand them, and the pathway to them.

The above is a simple scenario, but it illustrates how we must begin thinking about our online presence and how we must think about web engagement.

Learning Opportunities

[For more on Web Engagement see: What is Web Engagement Management (WEM)? and WEM Perspectives: It's Time for Analysts and Buyers to Move Beyond Web CMS.]

Why Does Personalization Matter? 

For many of us, the answer to this question seems obvious. However, some of us still have to convince those who control the budgets why they ought to invest in personalized web experiences.

So let's consider that if your visitors all have the same behavior, the same goals and are looking for same information, they would properly look like this:


If this is the case, then it makes sense that you would show the same content to all visitors -- they aren't different and they don't have different needs. But if you consider that your visitors are a group of people with different behaviors, different needs, different goals and perhaps even different cultures, then the picture starts to look more like this: 


Once we realize this, we can clearly see how personalization is an imperative -- if we are to achieve our business objectives using versions of tactics known to work in the offline world. First we segment, then we tailor the experiences. Intelligently tailored experiences build trust and increase the probability of real dialog. Real dialog opens the conversational door and thus the door to a longer term relationship.

Through understanding this mechanism we see the real value of personalization. By building business objective-based design and development practices into the management of your online presence you can exit the 1990's and enter the age of web engagement. Personalization is key to this transition.