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PHOTO: Katrina Berban

McKinsey & Company has called personalization at scale the Holy Grail of marketing, noting that “done right, personalization enhances customers’ lives and increases engagement and loyalty by delivering messages that are tuned to and even anticipate what customers really want.” 

While every brand wants to deliver personalization at scale for their customers, they often face challenges that fall into three broad categories: data collection, privacy and security, and organizational impediments.

Data Collection and Mobilization

The difference between personalization and personalization at scale is data. As Reltio VP of Marketing Ajay Khanna has pointed out, “personalization depends on a very deep understanding of the customer: their needs, preferences, behavior, choices, demographics, socio-economic information. Disconnected channels, systems, applications must come together to create a single source of truth of reliable customer data to deliver relevancy and personalization.” In other words, the first strike against personalization is data siloing because it prevents all the key pieces from coming together to reveal a complete picture of the customer.

Unfortunately, the information you have about customers and prospects is never going to be perfect, making personalization a challenge from the get-go. If the information you have is stuck in disconnected systems, your chance of creating a truly personalized experience for customers is slim to none. First, you have to mobilize your data so it can be used effectively. This involves performing a data audit to understand what you do and don't have and then implementing a data governance strategy to ensure that captured data is accurate and consistent. For one, data must be recorded in such a way that it is uniform. If sales representatives sometimes list a customer’s home state as “Alaska” and at other times as “AK” this can cause issues later on.

Beyond consistent recording, your various pieces of customer data need to be brought together to assemble a complete view of the customer. Whether data is aggregated into a data lake or something more structured like a data warehouse, maintaining a “single source of customer truth” is critical for deep personalization.

Related Article: 5 Drivers of Personalized Experiences: A Walk Through the AI Food Chain

Personalization vs. Privacy Considerations

It may seem contradictory, but there are times when it’s appropriate for customer data to be disjointed or intentionally incomplete. For example, most people immediately understand it would be inappropriate to collect and personalize information based on a customer’s medical history. Beyond the ethical problems of doing so there are also legal barriers to how medical data can be used as regulated by HIPAA and similar laws in the United States. In more privacy-sensitive Europe, things have been taken a step further, with GDPR famously codifying a customer’s “right to be forgotten” and right to ask a business to delete all information they have collected about them. Even in cases where customer data remains stored by businesses, they must document a good reason for doing so and limit usage to that purpose alone.

The legal and regulatory landscape is shifting in the US as well. Years of large-scale data breaches and highly publicized scandals, perhaps best epitomized by the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, have changed public attitudes with regards to privacy and pushed lawmakers to take action. For example, California, the home state of many of the world’s leading tech companies, saw the passage of The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in June 2018, with the legislation scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2020. Among other things, the law requires businesses with exposure to California residents (whether based in The Golden State or not) notify consumers as to what personal information they are collecting and ask for explicit consent before it is sold. Given that California is the world’s fifth largest economy, the repercussions of CCPA will be felt globally.

Businesses need to be honest that these restrictions will limit the degree to which they can personalize outreach to customers and prospects — and that’s OK. If customers request their data be anonymized (which they can under GDPR and CCPA), that will by default mean a certain degree of personalization will no longer be possible. Yet this is a small price to pay to build consumer trust, not to mention to avoid the severe political and legal ramifications of failure to comply. 

Related Article: When Marketing Personalization Becomes Too Intrusive

Organizational Silos Result in Disjointed Messaging

Just as data can become siloed, so too can business departments — and the results are no less dire for personalization initiatives. This is not just a matter of data being stored in different places but also an issue of communication and organizational cohesion. Effective personalization strategies require organizational alignment. If sales and marketing are both sending customers content they think will be useful, rather than satisfying the customer, they’ll leave the person wondering why they’re getting two of everything and thinking they're dealing with an organization that’s clearly disorganized. More broadly, sales and marketing — and really anyone engaging with customers — should be sharing the same message and value propositions so customers can perceive you as a single brand.

Ultimately, a company’s personalization strategy will have to be mapped out by the leadership of sales, marketing and customer success/experience. This accomplishes two things: first, it demonstrates that a cross-functional approach to personalization is seen as a priority at the highest level of the organization and second, it helps ensure organizational alignment by beginning at the top and then doling out responsibilities to specific teams. For example, sales can set out the goals of a particular campaign, such as increasing customer retention in a given industry, while marketing can create collateral for a specified subset of customers, while customer success can provide feedback, further tailor the content to specific accounts and share it with customers.

Of course, clear lines of communication will be imperative. If marketing doesn’t understand who sales wants to target and the customer success team doesn't know when content will be ready, problems and mistrust can arise. In addition to a written list of deliverables, timelines and ownership that all stakeholders have access to, it’s often worthwhile holding regular standups to discuss ongoing personalization initiatives, monitor progress and review any roadblocks. A communicative, collaborative environment will place your teams in the best position to share honest feedback and ultimately drive results.

Related Article: Dismantling Data Silos Isn't Just a Tech Challenge, It's About Meeting Customer Needs

Personalization Takes a Systemic Effort

While delivering personalized experiences for customers and prospects is a worthy goal, it requires an investment to make it happen. Some of the challenges may be solved by a one-time purchase or internal development of a system or application, but most will require more of a systematic effort to create and enforce procedures for data governance and organizational cohesion. 

Even then, the picture will never be perfect and a degree of personalization will always remain aspirational due to necessary legal and regulatory frameworks. Ultimately, it’s up to businesses to work within the regulatory landscape and do what they can internally to promote cohesion and communication on the road to personalization.