Personalization is generally regarded as the holy grail for digital marketers who want to fine-tune their targeting of customers and prospects.

But according to a survey of online shoppers released today, personalization only achieves its goals if offers are relevant and subtle. What's more, the companies making the offers need to be clear and transparent about how they plan to use shoppers' data.

Accenture Interactive surveyed 1,500 consumers between the ages of 18 to 60 in the United States and the United Kingdom. The startling takeaways: Personalization attempts often include irrelevant recommendations and overwhelming choices that cause shoppers to abandon websites.

Accenture Interactive is a part of Accenture Digital, a subsidiary of global professional services company Accenture.

Marketers Are 'Falling Short'

"Customers are expecting personalization and responding much better to it," said Jeriad Zoghby, managing director and global lead for personalization at Accenture Interactive.

"But the truth is most (marketers) are falling significantly short at it."

Zoghby estimates the vast majority of businesses are still in the earliest stages of Accenture's five-stage personalization maturity model. He sees most businesses practicing personalization "minimally or selectively," running campaigns on simplistic business rules or conducting simple A/B tests.

But personalization offers significant potential for marketers who master it. Most online shoppers like being remembered and enjoy targeted offers that make their shopping experiences easier, the study concluded. As long as they're recognized, remembered and offered relevant recommendations, online shoppers embrace personalization.

Make it Personal, Relevant

jeriad zoghby

The key for marketers is to get it right. A whopping 39 percent of shoppers have left a website and purchased from a competitor because they were overwhelmed by too many options — and half have declined to make a recommended online purchase.

"That was absolutely shocking to us — that 50 percent haven't bought something based on a recommendation," Zoghby said. "The goal of personalization should be to make things easier through the use of data for a customer to buy, consume and engage how and when they want. And when they don't, it's when you fail."

Zoghby told CMSWire successful personalization in the digital world is like good customer interactions in the offline world — like knowing what a particular customer typically orders or that another prefers a specific brand.

More Channels, More Challenges

Zoghby concedes the digital world is far more complex than the corner coffee shop. In fact, he said, it includes "more options than we've ever had."

Learning Opportunities

Instead of recognizing faces, marketers need to analyze data from multiple sources and use the findings to create relevant, personalized messages.

It takes work: persona-building, segment-building, data-gathering on which offers historically work and knowing what segments will be targeted for which particular content, as Matthew Cyr, director of content marketing for Worcester, Mass.-based Clark University, explained earlier this year to CMSWire.

But there is a fine line between helpful and annoying. Nearly 40 percent of consumers in Accenture Interactive's personalization study said they have left a website and made a purchase on another site or in store because they were overwhelmed by too many options when trying to make a decision.

"We think it's great to put all these options in front of them, but in many cases we overwhelm them," Zoghby said.

"The brands who do a good job curating the experience, curating the online merchandise to help you find what you're looking for, those are the brands that are succeeding. We were shocked to see there were that many people saying, 'Enough's enough. I'll just buy somewhere else.'"

What Do Online Shoppers Want?

Online shoppers want an easy experience in the e-commerce world. And personalization can help, according to the Accenture Interactive survey:

  • Customers like being recognized: 56 percent are more likely to shop at a retailer in store or online that recognizes them by name
  • Customers like relevant recommendations: 58 percent are more likely to make a purchase when a retailer recommends options for them based on their past purchases or preferences
  • Customers like being remembered: 65 percent are more likely to shop at a retailer in store or online that knows their purchase history

Researchers from Accenture Interactive also found shoppers want companies to be transparent with their online data, give them control of their data and use their personal data to serve them better.

"A clear line has formed between helpful and invasive personalization strategies," researchers wrote. "The goal of personalization should be to use data to make it easier for customers to buy and consume what they want. If the objective it to simply make a sale, companies risk tarnishing that long-term relationship."