Organizations have been turning to personalized marketing as a way to establish deeper and more long-lasting relationships with customers and to generate more business. And for good reason, as recent Salesforce research found customers increasingly anticipate personalized interactions at every stage of their buyer's journey, from brand awareness through purchase and potentially on to retention and brand advocacy.

However, unless a brand has put in the work up front to prepare content for personalization, their efforts may fail. 

Perhaps your organization put its personalization strategy on the back burner due to the impact of the pandemic, choosing instead to focus on rethinking its overall marketing approach. Even if that's the case, you can take steps now to lay a great foundation for future personalization success.

Pick an On-Ramp to Personalization

So, how should you proceed?

Jeffrey MacIntyre, principal of Bucket Studio, describes three on-ramps to personalized experience or progressive personalization: automation, customization or focused personalization.

If taking an automation on-ramp, MacIntyre recommends dissecting a customer journey, and focusing on one high-value series of interactions, like an onboarding experience or a nurture campaign.

“Now, deliver those with largely existing as-is supporting content in a new channel, such as an email automation or a chain of interactive videos,” he said. “Create opportunities for users to self-select and express their interests to you, then see how this profiling enables you to cater to their needs and drive your KPIs more effectively than your default channel does today.”

The goal with the customization on-ramp is to slim down an existing stack of pages trying to cater to multiple audiences, and then create a mirror of these pages, each customized to the standalone audience.

“Measure how this semi-duplicative set of pages compares in catering to one audience versus the one trying to satisfy multiple audiences,” MacIntyre said. “Establish clear signals digitally that can demonstrate whether you’ve succeeded or not in progressing them to their next best step.”

For the limited personalization on-ramp, your organization concentrates on a region of your website or a specific app.

“Create a dynamic rotation of content recommendations that help your users to complete tasks common to their user segment,” MacIntyre said. “As they progress in their relationship with you, provide them more value here — make their life easier, encourage habituating them to interacting with this component.”

Organizations can then apply this approach across other channels or can productize it as a standalone offering or as a product benefit which is part of your customer experience.

Related Article: Personalization: Where Data and Content Intersect 

Pay Attention to All the Moving Parts

Lindy Roux, VP, managing director of Tendo Communications, cautions organizations that a personalization strategy is much more than simply developing a set of rules, it’s about paying attention to all of the moving parts.

To execute a personalization strategy correctly, your organization needs to identify and prioritize four elements, according to Roux. There’s the project’s objectives and KPIs; the behavioral and demographic attributes of your target audience; the implicit and explicit triggers behind those attributes; and your content in terms of how it is architected and the tags required to deliver a targeted experience.

Roux also recommends that organizations keep things simple. “Do the math — don’t lose sight of the permutations and combinations required to deliver on your personalization rules,” she said. “If they’re too complex, you may simply not have enough content (or bandwidth to create that content) in order to satisfy the variations required.”

Additionally, Roux talks about the importance of taking an iterative approach to personalization. “Test and refine to optimize your results,” she said. “Start with the highest priority attributes first, then add layers, following a ‘crawl, walk, run’ model.”

Related Article: Personalization Goes Nowhere Without Trust

Re-examine Content Production, Be Realistic About Testing

Organizations embarking on personalization should reassess how they create content, according to James Goldman, enterprise B2B content strategy consultant. They need to have editorial governance and production processes in place which match the structures and segments that their personalization strategy will leverage.

“You should have a significant pool of content already developed under these rules, processes and structures,” he said. “Retrofitting your content after it’s been produced is difficult and often of limited success.”

Goldman also advises that organizations keep their expectations for personalization realistic, particularly during the testing phase.

“Make sure you are factoring a long iterative cycle for your testing,” Goldman said. “Invest in custom content, even on a small scale, that will give you key information rather than show your ability to scale a process that you can’t prove is of value.”

Content and UX are interdependent so organizations must also think about designing their UI to support personalization, ideally prior to start of the personalization project.

“A signal from an experiment that is surrounded by a flawed UX should be viewed as random,” Goldman said. “The effort and investment it takes to employ a personalization strategy aren’t minor, so neither should be the effort and investment for testing that strategy.”

Related Article: 1-to-1 Marketing Personalization: Myth or Reality?

Make Sure You Really Understand What a Personalized Experience Means

"Understand that personalization requires orchestration of multiple internal processes and a holistic view of content, product information, the customer journey and knowledge of customer needs and solutions," said Seth Earley, CEO of Earley Information Science and author of “The AI-Powered Enterprise.” "Many organizations attempt personalization without an understanding of what a personalized experience really means — they don’t know the customer well enough to distinguish messaging across segments. The upstream processes are not mature enough to determine what a truly personalized experience means."

In order to deliver personalized customer experiences at scale, Earley recommends that organizations look closely at four areas — their customer data foundation; componentized content; product architecture; and knowledge and insights. In each area, the focus should be on adopting unified models, using advanced services and expertise, and deploying standardized platforms and processes.

Learning Opportunities

Think IA Before AI

Some organizations may start out with the faulty assumption that they need to personalize everything. A better expectation is to see personalization as “a focusing opportunity for putting your content on a crash diet,” according to MacIntyre.

“Personalized content should be a simplified experience — not a more comprehensive, nor a cluttered one,” he said. “It’s also about delivering incrementally and progressively across the techniques of personalization, customization and automation.”

Organizations should put the emphasis on content performance, and not content creation.

“Established organizations with mature content offerings spend more time and attention on metadata and their strategic approach to data and measurement than they will on content per se,” MacIntyre said. “It’s IA [information architecture] before AI.”

Earley notes three areas which organizations tend to overlook or leave out in their readying of content for personalization. “Lack of unified data and information architecture,” he said. “Lack of a messaging architecture — breaking content into components to optimize — and lack of a component architecture.”

Related Article: Looking for Structure in the Dollar Menu

Just Because You Have the Tech, Doesn't Mean You're Ready to Use It

For Goldman, organizations tend to stumble because they haven’t invested in defining, incorporating and deploying cross-functional taxonomies before they kick off a personalization process.

“All too often, personalization technology is deployed as part of a larger ecosystem of content technology,” he said. “That may seem to make perfect sense, but just because an organization has something, doesn’t mean it is ready to use it.”

For example, if your organization hasn’t already been creating content for specific personas and journey stages, it's unlikely that you will then be able to target that content to specific audiences.

“Finally, remember that many personalization systems don’t just leverage information about your users from their behavior on your owned properties, but rather a repository of behavioral cues and business data,” Goldman said. “Therefore, you need to translate your definition of your users to the various systems you are using. That isn’t easy, especially if you haven’t taken those various sources into consideration at the onset.”

Take a Structured Approach to Your Content

For Roux, the two areas that organization either overlook or leave out are content structure and taxonomy.

“In order to deliver content dynamically based on personalization rules, it’s important to structure that content in a way that only the personalized ‘chunk’ is variable,” she said. “That way, you are only changing the variable element of a piece of content, keeping all else the same.”

If you don’t use a structured content approach, you’ll be dealing with redundancy — both from a content management and authoring point-of-view — as multiple variations of a larger piece of copy would need to be maintained, Roux said.

“Taxonomy is probably the most commonly overlooked element of a personalization strategy,” she said. “In order to dynamically deliver the most relevant piece of content based on user attributes, the content will need to be tagged with values that map to or match the specific attributes (think industry, product or topic). The best way to approach tagging is through the use of a robust enterprise taxonomy that is applied consistently throughout the content ecosystem.”

If you don’t use an enterprise taxonomy for personalization, the process by which content is tagged or otherwise identified for delivery in a personalized experience can be haphazard or inconsistent, which makes that content very difficult to maintain, according to Roux.

Combine Personalization, Insight and Empathy

One suggestion from the 2020 Salesforce report referenced above is for organizations to consider personalization in a broader context, where every aspect of the customer relationship is based on insight and empathy. Your organization would then apply knowledge about an individual customer’s circumstances — their current job status and financial situation — to conduct personalized marketing empathetically.

It’s clear that a significant gap still exists between how customers hope to engage with organizations and what happens in reality, according to the report. For instance, 66% of surveyed customers expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations, but only 34% of companies generally treat customers as unique individuals. The findings are similar when customers were asked about their expectations for brands to demonstrate empathy (68%) vs. their real-life experience of brands showing empathy (37%).

By preparing your content for personalization, you can better position your organization for a future where more customers expect their vendors to interact with them in greater humanity.