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Understanding Rules- vs. Intent-Based Marketing Personalization

11 minute read
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Marketers seeking personalization strategies should understand two concepts as it relates to personalization — intent vs. rules.

About a fifth of brands say about 75% of the content their organizations produce for their customers is personalized. On the other side, about a fifth of respondents in the 2021 survey reported by Statista said that less than 10% of their customer content was personalized.

Here's something to consider with marketing personalization: because of advances in machine learning and personalization technology, it’s no longer just about personalization but the level of personalization being delivered.

“Personalization is an often hyped yet poorly understood concept within marketing,” said Jason McNellis, senior director analyst at Gartner. “Lack of a clear definition means many organizations equate personalization with ‘all things’ digital marketing. Before a marketing leader worries about the tactics, they should nail down what it means for their brand to claim a landing page, email or customer interaction is ‘personalized’.”

At the crux of the marketing personalization conundrum seems to be the levels of personalization organizations attempt to provide. Are you providing rules-based personalization or intent-based personalization?

What Is Rules-Based Personalization?

Is Rules-Based Personalization a Strategy?

Some say no. Rules-based personalization is not a personalization strategy, according to Adam Conn, co-founder of Uniform. It is an approach used to implement a personalization strategy, meaning it describes the way a system determines what the most relevant experience is for a customer, he added. According to Conn, an example of rules-based personalization is: 

Show a coupon code when the visitor is located in North America and has made at least $100 worth of purchases over the past month. “Rules-based personalization involves a marketer describing an action — ‘show a coupon code’ — that should take place when a certain condition is met — ‘when the visitor is located in North America,’” Conn said.

If you are considering using a tool that offers rules-based personalization, you should determine who will be responsible for configuring personalization, how complex the rules that control personalization are, how much personalization are you planning to deploy and how you are going to manage changes when they are needed, Conn added. “If you are working with a vendor,” he said, “request a demonstration of how complex scenarios are handled so you understand what is required to use the tool and the impact of those scenarios on speed and results.”

Rules-Based Personalization Is Rooted in If/Then Logic

Rules-based personalization utilizes if/then logic to tailor the consumer journey and requires a set of manually programmed instructions or “rules” to serve what a consumer should see, according to Diane Keng, CEO of Breinify.

The first use cases revolve around something like this:

  • Show/hide something based on a simple trigger such as “clicked add to cart”
  • If the page has the word “hair” in the url, show banner No. 2

“Realistically, enterprises know the importance of intent and context, but to build that in-house is impossible,” Keng said. “Rules-based personalization requires relying heavily on communications between non-technical marketers and engineering-heavy developers. This tends to be the first step toward personalization by many large organizations.”

Program Rules Execute When Specific Actions Occur

These "rules" apply to personalization of a tactic in addition to the orchestration of those tactics inside a defined demand or account-based marketing (ABM) program designed to enable a buying group in their decision process, according to Forrester Principal Analyst Jessie Johnson, commenting from a B2B marketing perspective.

“Audience actions driving personalization logic are indicative of intent, a key source of buying signals that should be considered in the design of personalized experiences,” Johnson said.

For rules-based personalization applied via individual action, a defined set of responses determines what happens next; e.g. if this content is viewed, carry out this specific action at this time and in this channel. A machine learning algorithm can automate those rules by deciding what happens next; e.g. if a buyer takes this action, this response is delivered based on top performers, what similar audiences have interacted with next, or what a particular journey predicts should happen based on past performance, Johnson added.

Related Article: When Will Marketers Master Personalization?

What Is Intent-Based Personalization?

Changes in Prediction Score

Intent-based personalization frequently uses a change in prediction score to change an individual’s inclusion or exclusion in an audience or the specific treatment or version used in a communication, according to McNellis. “Sometimes intent-based predictions also suggest how an individual should be treated,” he said. “[An example of this] category would be combining intent to purchase with intent to engage with coupons. Intent does not have to be predicted with machine learning, it can also be inferred based on a consumer’s action or by directly asking them. In those cases ‘intent’ is often rules based, which is one reason I do not distinguish between the two.”

Intent-Based Is Customer-Centric Personalization

Intent-based personalization is a customer-centric personalization strategy that is focused on delivering the most relevant experience based on the customer’s in-the-moment intent, Conn said.

It is personalization based on answering this question:

  • “What is this customer trying to accomplish right now?”

As opposed to:

  • “Who is this customer?” (persona-based personalization)
  • “What has this customer done recently?” (activity-based personalization)

“The real power of intent-based personalization is when intents can be defined and managed centrally and deployed across a brand’s entire technology stack, regardless of the vendor who provides the technology or the channel the experience is delivered on,” Conn said.

Intent-Based Personalization Is Being Proactive

Keng calls intent-based personalization the next phase of marketing evolution. In short, she added, being proactive.

“This is an approach where marketers go beyond to understand customer expectations or ‘intent’ and act in the moment with the right experience,” she said. “An intent-based journey diverges from selling people something relevant toward anticipating a discrete need at an exact time. Then serving a highly-needed experience with content that goes beyond an offer or product.”

Intent-driven personalization is dependent on powerful algorithms to analyze billions of users’ behaviors to learn which combinations of journey sequences, personas and creative will perform best for a set marketing goal, according to Keng. It then applies this intelligence and learning process across campaigns, channels and platforms to continuously iterate and improve toward exceeding specific marketing goals.

Two Types of Intent: Purchase and Interaction

Johnson said two types of intent exist with customers and prospects:

  • Intent at the highest level, as it relates to the stage of the purchasing decision journey the buyer is in.
  • Interaction intent, which is the buyer’s purpose for engaging with a tactic; think conversational intent or search intent.

“Both types of intent — purchase intent and interaction intent — are signaled through audience behavior and come from multiple sources, both first- and third-party,” Johnson said.

Related Article: Why Is Marketing Personalization So Hard?

Intent-Based Personalization Advantages

Intent Informs Manual and Automated Personalization

Asked the advantages of each personalization approach — intent vs. rules — Johnson cited the distinction between manual and automated personalization, which each may exist within a program or within a delivery mechanism; e.g. website home page vs. specific landing page. Intent, she added, should inform both approaches, considering buying stage plus interest and intention for the interaction in that moment.

“Intent informs both manual and automated approaches to the logic that drives personalization," Johnson said. "The disadvantage of the manual approach to rules-based personalization is lack of scalability across audiences, programs, and tactics."

Intent Revolves Around Customer Needs

The main advantage of intent-based personalization is how it revolves around the customer’s needs, which can frequently change depending on the context, according to Conn. Intent-based personalization is designed to accommodate the reality that customers’ needs frequently change.

Learning Opportunities

“This stands in contrast with other personalization strategies,” Conn said. ”For example, persona-based personalization is too inflexible since the persona is not context-specific and, once set, rarely changes.”

Conn cited the example of a travel site being visited by three customers. Each customer corresponds to one of the travel site personas: Empty Nesters, Newlyweds and Young Adults. “You can personalize based on the customer’s persona, but what if these customers are interested in a weekend trip to Paris?” Conn asked. “That interest doesn’t relate to the persona at all. The customer isn’t interested in traveling to Paris because of their persona. There’s another reason, but that reason can’t be identified using personas.”

Intent Yields Better Long-Term Results

Consumers are happier when they are not bucketed into a segment that rarely changes but met with a human-like relationship, according to Keng. And intent efforts are much more scalable the larger brands grow.

With intent-based personalization strategies, there is “no need to have a ‘winner takes all approach’ where the same strategy and experience is imposed on all visitors,” Keng added. “Using intent-driven personalization allows for dynamic preferences with the ability for shifting context. At the end of the day, personalization success is measured by achieving goals set by the marketers to lead consumers down an ideal journey that leads to revenue or brand stickiness."

Intent-Based Personalization Is Dynamic

The big advantage of intent-based personalization is that it is dynamic, according to McNellis. As a consumer's underlying data changes, their probability of intent has the potential to change; this is specially important for triggering, which is a big part of personalization, he added.

Rules-Based Personalization Advantages

Configuring Simple Scenarios

The main advantage of rules-based personalization is that it is easy to configure simple scenarios, according to Conn. For example, configuring personalization based on a visitor’s location is usually an easy thing to enable. “Another advantage is that it is pretty easy for vendors to implement, making it the most common way that vendors implement personalization,” Conn said.

Rules-Based Is Simple to Deploy

According to Keng, rules-based personalization tends to be easier to get started especially with simple rules such as:

  • If user visits for the first time, show a banner
  • On Day 5, send email No. 1

There are more vendors from which to choose and assess, Keng added, and more hands-on configurations for control with rules-based tactics. It can be managed more in-house with a company’s own developers.

Related Article: Grading Your Marketing Personalization Strategy

Disadvantages of Intent-Based Personalization

Intent Requires Deep Planning

The main disadvantage of intent-based personalization is that it requires planning, Conn said. You must understand your customers, why they are engaging with your brand and how they engage differently on different channels.

“Enabling intent-driven experiences are oftentimes not instant,” Keng said. “Customer data usually sits across different silos of marketing tools and platforms, so it takes time to build up the picture of the customer.”

Trusting AI Can Be Difficult

Software technology tends to be intangible and hard to grasp physically, according to Keng. Trusting AI could take work. “For a marketer who likely came from a rules-based world, this individual has to learn to adapt a mindset where the trust is in the software to find the best consumer journey sequence and content,” she said. “This can be very daunting.”

Further, she said, machine learning can sometimes feel like a black box, especially if the marketer is not classically trained in data science.

Disadvantages of Rules-Based Personalization

Complexity Beyond Basic Use Cases

The main disadvantage of rules-based personalization is that as soon as you move beyond very basic use cases, they quickly become too complex for marketers to manage and almost impossible to scale with your requirements, according to Conn.

“This is because marketers must think like developers in order to configure the rules,” he said. “Compound if-else statements might be completely natural for developers, but marketers struggle with such a technical approach.”

Tedious, Limited Process

No matter how mathematically or creatively inclined a marketer may be, there will always be a limit to how many segments can be managed before it all becomes too complex, according to Keng. “These experiences usually involve a lot of manual overlooking for different tests and keeping track of variations against each segment,” she added.

Further, she said, the rules are static. These can range from simple if/then or more complex like if this and that, then do this and if the result shows this, show z. However, they all have to be pre-defined versus intent-driven by an AI which could find millions of consumer journey variations and activate the right content.

“Each rule set tends to be created for a specific scenario,” Keng said. “If new features are introduced, usually the rule set cannot be easily adapted.”

Conclusion: Navigating Personalization in 2022

What can marketers do to up their personalization game? McNellis said marketers should clarify what personalization means for their brand and select operational metrics for their personalization strategy. “How will you positively manage the day-to-day while waiting for business outcomes to improve?” he asked.

The goal of personalization, Johnson said, is to “sense and respond to buying signals in real time to deliver hyper-relevant, self-optimizing tactic experiences that enable complex buying journeys.”