Picture this: You walk into a department store, and the sales clerk greets you with a smile. “We’re having a blowout sale on bedroom furniture,” he says. “Would you like to see our selection?”

“No thanks,” you say, letting him know you’ve come to shop camping gear.

“Then it’s your lucky day!” he announces. “I’m from the sporting goods department; that’s my specialty.” You spend the next four minutes talking through what you need, before your phone interrupts you.

“Shoot, gotta take this call,” you tell him, stepping outside. The clerk promises to wait, and you return 30 seconds later.

He smiles at you blankly. “Bedroom furniture sale on floor 2!” 

Ugh! An in-store experience like this would likely make you feel unappreciated, and the brand would lose the sale. Why should it be any different when a website can’t remember you from one visit to the next? (Hint: It shouldn’t!)

Personalized Experiences Are Within Reach

Customers nowadays feel the same way. They get impatient with generic online interactions. The helpful, personalized experiences we all have in our personal lives demonstrate what’s possible, setting the bar for all types of purchase interactions, business transactions included.

And with the pandemic driving more people online, the need for digital-first business approaches and transformations has accelerated. Now it’s especially important for companies to meet customers where they are and how they want to buy — providing streamlined digital experiences that map to buyers’ unique interests and needs to drive engagement and conversions.

The good news is, as technology continues to advance while cost barriers decline, a sophisticated approach to personalization is within reach for all types and sizes of companies, B2C and B2B alike. The not so good news? Many businesses aren’t executing. Inhibited by data silos, outmoded technology, and a lack of coordination across teams, among other factors, personalization often remains at a basic level, where effectiveness is more limited.

Related Article: What Do We Mean by Personalization?

6 Common Personalization Mistakes

From my perspective as both a CMO and as a consumer, I see a range of mistakes in personalization almost daily — from small areas that could use tweaking (like a misspelling) to more embarrassing gaffes (including emails delivered to “Hi, [FIRST_NAME!]”). Here are six common mistakes and tips to avoid them:

1. No Personalization at All

Got a longtime, valued banking customer? You’re missing an opportunity (and probably eliciting some eye-rolls …) if you email them a promotion for the rewards credit card they already have. Got a hot prospect in manufacturing? What’s the point of showing them healthcare case studies on your website?

Failing to connect the dots and recognize a buyer and take action from one visit to the next (as in the store anecdote, above) is a surefire way to alienate coveted customers. But for companies, sometimes the idea of getting started on personalization can be overwhelming. It doesn’t need to be. Nowadays, it’s easy to gather information that can power personalization — your organization likely already has mounds of it. And while comprehensive, world-class personalization initiatives aren’t born overnight, you can take what Gartner calls a “crawl-walk-run” approach. For example, start in one channel, such as your website — cleaning up your data, A/B testing experiences, etc. — get comfortable, and go for quick, easy and meaningful wins. Then move on to the next channel/priority.

2. Inconsistent Experiences Across Channels

Excellent customer experiences allow buyers to pick up where they left off — whether they’re going from your mobile app to your website, your website to your call center, an email to your kiosk, etc. Whenever there’s a lack of personalization and continuity from one channel to the next, or a delay in passing activity data from channel to channel, it introduces friction into the customer journey. (“I have to start over?!”) Customer data platforms (CDPs) and “unified profiles” — which pull all behavioral, transactional and demographic/firmographic data about each customer or prospect into a single view — can help break down data silos and power real-time, cross-channel personalization.

Related Article: Personalize at Scale With Modular Content

Learning Opportunities

3. Lack of Individualization

All people who live in California aren’t the same. All prospects who belong to the financial services industry aren’t the same. Even as you get more granular, with prospects who share multiple characteristics, they’re not the same. And while personalization based on segments is still valid and important, your company may be missing valuable opportunities by not also speaking to online visitors as individuals. By tapping into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning algorithms — which can rapidly process vast quantities of data, uncover patterns and even determine optimal next steps — you can tailor product recommendations, blog and content recommendations, offers and more to the individual at hand.

4. Personalization That’s too Broad

Related to the example above, your personalization can also miss the mark when there’s not enough specific content to back it up. Once you decide to invest in personalization, make sure you have the right content to make customers’ journeys meaningful. Start with a content audit. Chances are, a variety of assets exists for different industries, personas, stages of the sales cycle, etc. Make sure they’re categorized and tagged appropriately, so they can be shown to the right people at the right time. 

Related Article: Immersive Experiences: Be There or Be Left Behind

5. Incorrect Personalization

Sometimes companies try to deliver personalization, but the result is off-base. For example, a buyer’s intent may have changed from previous visits — so showing an individual something they were interested in last week (or even last time) falls flat. Or let’s say after searching online, a buyer made a major purchase through a vendor’s call center … but then are followed by online and email ads for the identical item they purchased.

On the consumer side, perhaps an individual without children bought a onesie for their newborn niece from their favorite retailer. It wouldn’t make sense for the retailer to then continually bombard that person with recommendations for baby clothing and toys. Or perhaps, based on your search history, you receive personalized recommendations via email — but when you click one, you land on an out-of-stock page.

In all of these cases, the personalization is based on bad or outdated data that doesn’t tell the complete picture or isn’t linked to real-time inventory. The lesson: clean up your data, and make sure systems and channels are able to rapidly pass information between them.

6. Failing to Factor in Privacy

With regulations such as GDPR and CCPA today, there’s a greater focus on safeguarding customers’ privacy. Personalization, of course, should be used in a way that’s helpful and adds value to the customer journey, without drawing from sensitive or confidential (e.g., health) information. Companies can consider involving customers directly in their personalized experiences — using “zero-party data” (such as from online surveys and preference centers) that individuals provide themselves to help personalize their experiences. By delivering personalization responsibly and being a good steward of customer data, you’re more likely to earn your customers’ trust and drive further engagement.

Related Article: How to Turn Data Privacy and Compliance Regulations Into a Buyer Advantage

Personalization Isn't Optional, It's Imperative

Rising customer expectations and knowledge of the power of personalization have combined to make it an imperative for companies across industries. In fact, according to Gartner, nearly one third (32%) of digital marketing leaders say that "creating and delivering personalized experiences for customers" is among their top three digital marketing objectives for 2021.

Does that mean 2022 will be the year organizations excel at personalization? By taking steps to avoid the mistakes above, companies can turn bland, cookie-cutter interactions (and off-base personalization that’s hard to swallow) into experiences their customers will love.

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