Gartner defines personalization in its Magic Quadrant for Digital Experience Platforms (fee required) as a process that “creates a relevant, individualized interaction between two parties designed to enhance the experience of the recipient.” Marketers use insight based on the recipient's personal data, as well as behavioral data about the actions of similar individuals to deliver an experience that meets specific needs and preferences, Gartner researchers found.

Sounds easy, right? Not so much. Marketers still struggle today with the execution of personalized messages, according to 2017 research published by Sailthru (free registration required), which found that marketers have personalization challenges ranging from data (23 percent) and a lack of resources (42 percent). The quest for creating personalized experiences for customers begins with knowledge of the customer, naturally. And for marketers, that means doing some dirty work. 

The Tech is There, But the Challenge Remains

The technology is there, but the execution is still challenging. "We get this a lot from clients. They'll say, 'Wow, I can do whatever I want. Now what should I do?" said Karl Wirth, CEO of Evergage, which provides personalization technology. "The tech is there, but now you have to think about how am I going to use it? What's my use case? How does that tie to business goals? It's a thinking process. The missing thing is knowing that to do."

We caught up with some of those in the trenches trying to do just that — create personalized experiences for their prospects and customers — at the Evergage Personalization Summit in Boston last week.

Related Article: Personalized Marketing: Where We Are in 2018

Representing the Needs of All Teams in the Organization

Theresa Marwah, head of martech at Atlassian, said her team serves as a strategic partner with the company's marketing organizations. She collaborates with the organization’s chief marketing officer and senior leadership across marketing because, she says, “personalization kind of touches everyone, which is exciting.” 

One of the big challenges? Making sure that everybody's needs and all the teams affected are are getting represented in the solution going forward. “We know we have the tech to deliver, it's what do you want to do? Do you have the right data to do it? And then how do you execute that in an agile, iterative fashion? So, you’re constantly learning.”

Marwah said she sees the personalization endgame as doing marketing as a service. “We really are in service to our customers,” she said. “We want to make sure that we understand everything about who they are, what they use, what kind of company and team they work for. And we can use that information to help them find the right best next content, or the right best next training, and just help them on their journey as they're evolving.”

Marketing Blend of Art and Science Still Exists

Marketing’s always been a balance between art and science, Marwah said. She finds going out and talking to people still helps a great deal. “And then on the other side, we're also living in a time where we have so much data, anonymous data, and we can go to either extreme,” she said. Good marketing tactics — and ultimately strong personalized marketing — combines both the art and science. 

It requires, reading the data appropriately, using the data to help move the company forward and making sure personalization efforts are actually delivering value for a large number of people. Personalization is only as good as the content your organization serves, Marwah added. The tools are only as good as the content to execute personalized messages, she added.

Related Article: The Rocky Path to Personalization

Digitally Transforming a 130-Year-Old Brand

Aaron Nilsson’s challenges creating personalized experiences as a marketer are large. Nilsson is manager of digital experience at Dearborn, Mich.-based Carhartt, a US apparel company founded in 1889.  He needs to convince his organization and stakeholders that digital personalization can help a brand that began in the 19th century. 

“This is one of the most historic brands,” Nilsson said. “... A lot of our effort right now is convincing people to embrace the web and explore all the different products. We're known for like five things but we carry 1,000 things. One of the big advantages to the Web is seeing the 995 things that you wouldn't be to able to see in a local store.”

Learning Opportunities

Talent Acquisition Challenges

Hiring today is competitive and it's no different at Carhartt. "We’re also challenged in finding good, talented people in Detroit," Nilsson said. "There are no web and UX type of practices. We're not in Silicon Valley. It’s hard.”

Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Nilsson said his team is always looking for innovative ways to connect to customers. A developer worked on a messaging campaign that included a "popular products" widget on 404 error message pages. “A 404 page says, ‘I don’t know what to do,'" Nilsson said. But his marketing team was able to turn that poor experience into a good one. Nilsson said the effort took all but 40 minutes for the developer but was such a hit with web visitors in terms of conversions, it would “fund our team for six months.” 

Related Article: Bridge the Data-Driven Personalization Gap with Customer Data Platforms

Integration Challenges

Headshot of Locky Macdonald
Locky Macdonald

Locky Macdonald, director of ecommerce and digital marketing for Specialty Commerce, said his marketing teams are taking personalization slowly. “We really feel we don't do a great job of getting the right things in front of customers and so that's really kind of a challenge,” Macdonald said. The company sells wigs, and personalizing the home page can make all the difference making a visitor feel they’re in the right place, Macdonald said.

One thing with which he contends, though, is disparate data systems. They’ve got one tool for website personalization data and another for email. Those two systems produce different data sets. “The email tool will come up with its product recommendations based on the data it has,” Macdonald said. “We’ve got another tool for the website, but the one for email is a good company, and we’ve enjoyed working with them, so we didn’t feel the need to make the switch.” 

Related Article: Personalization: How Much Is Too Much?

Applying Personalization in Long Buying Cycle

Many marketers talk about the need to personalize content at the right time, and immediately, or else your prospects can turn elsewhere. But what if the buying cycle is long, lasting months? Such as higher education and healthcare? First-time visitors to a college website usually don't become students that day. Vanessa Theoharis, director of digital marketing at OHO Interactive, works directly with marketers who have that very challenge: personalizing messages at the right time over the course of what can be a six-month buying journey. 

She calls this a “huge hang-up” amongst marketers. “The biggest challenge is really understanding how to apply the personalization strategy to a very long process,” Theoharis said. “And to really understand what content is most relevant at each stage of that cycle to push them to the next stage of that cycle. Do you really know what is most relevant at that point in time when that person is at that stage?”

Having an internal champion who can push for resources only helps. “If you have an internal champion for personalization or for martech solutions, and they have any sort of clout in the organization, you're pretty much good,” Theoharis said. “If the organization does not have that internally it is going to take years for them to get buy in."