Personalization use cases, techniques, benefits and the space as a whole have evolved dramatically in the last seven years. My firm, Evergage, in conjunction with Researchscape International, have fielded a survey about trends in personalization over these years and have seen how attitudes towards the practice of tailoring experiences based on knowledge learned about an individual have changed.

Our latest edition of this study, “2020 Trends in Personalization,” was based on data from an online survey of 326 B2B and B2C marketers at companies of all sizes and across industries, predominantly based in the US.

Personalization in a Changing World

This year’s study was conducted largely before and at the beginning of the pandemic, from Feb. 20 to March 27. And clearly the world we’re living in now is profoundly different.

Since that time, in the corporate world, having a digital-first business posture has become more important than ever. For many companies, digital experiences have provided a critical way — often, the only way — to reach customers and stay afloat.

Of course, personalization is a key part of a good digital experience. With personalization, you can show customers you recognize them, and that you’re here to fulfill their unique and changing wants and needs. Many businesses today are using personalization to deliver helpful, streamlined, empathetic and contextually relevant content and experiences virtually, at the 1-to-1 level and at scale.

Related Article: Why Personalization Efforts Fail

Continued Personalization Trends

Underscoring the vital role of digital experiences, the survey results continue the upward trends we’ve seen over the years: personalization is getting more strategic, more impactful and more deeply embedded within the cultural and customer experience (CX) fabrics of organizations.

Take these indicators, for instance:

  • Nearly all marketers (99%) said personalization advances their customer relationships, the highest percentage we’ve seen. Roughly eight in 10 (78%) called the impact “strong” or “extremely strong,” up from 70% in last year’s study.
  • More than nine in 10 marketers (92%) said their customers and prospects expect experiences that are individually tailored to them. This is also the highest level we’ve seen: up from 85% last year and 88% in 2018.
  • 85% of marketers said personalization should be a bigger priority in their organizations right now, compared to 74% last year.
  • The main motivator for deploying personalization is improving the customer experience (89%), more so than generating ROI (59%) or driving more leads (42%). This is reflective of what we saw last year, too, and represents a longer-term and more expansive view of the value of personalization. Simply put, there’s great value in treating customers well.

personalization trends
Evergage and Researchscape International, 2020 Trends in Personalization

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Personalization Approaches Grow More Sophisticated

Throughout the years, we’ve also seen marketers get more sophisticated in how they apply personalization, using methods that are less interruptive and obtrusive, and instead provide more natural experiences.

One example is using inline content to dynamically insert personalized images or content within a page, screen or email. This year, 62% of marketers said they employ this method, compared to 50% in 2019 and 38% in 2018. Unlike a pop-up, for example, inline content provides a completely fluid experience, with personalized recommendations incorporated cohesively and inconspicuously within the buyer’s journey.

In addition to getting more advanced in how they display personalization, marketers are also taking a more sophisticated approach to what they use to power it. To that end, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is also on the rise. Unlike the traditional rules-based approach to personalization (where each group you want to personalize for needs a prescriptive set of manually created rules), machine learning can unlock the promise of data-driven relevance in a split second, with great accuracy, at the individual level and at scale. Machine-learning algorithms can also rapidly uncover changes in customer behavior and preferences, and provide up-to-date, relevant recommendations.

Learning Opportunities

This year, nearly half of marketers (46%) said they use machine-learning-driven personalization, up from 40% last year and 26% in 2018.

Related Article: What Is Machine Learning's Impact on Marketing Personalization

Making the Grade?

Despite the advances, challenges persist. For marketers, many common roadblocks to deeper, more successful personalization stem from data issues: 56% said they don’t have sufficient data and insights to power effective campaigns and programs. And where data exists, it’s often not being shared, connected and activated, as nearly a quarter of companies (23%) stated they didn't have any of their channels connected. When your data is siloed like this, you can’t recognize customers from one touchpoint to the next, and can’t deliver experiences that build on each other. Organizations facing this challenge need to centralize their data in a common repository, like a customer data platform (CDP), that can handle high volumes and complexity of data and, very importantly, can generate insights and activate the data to deliver personalized experiences.

Reflecting the sentiment that there’s more work to be done, 63% of marketers gave their personalization output a C grade or lower (46% graded themselves a C, and 17% a D or F). Only 4% thought their efforts deserved an A. On the bright side, this is still an improvement from last year, with A and B rankings increasing by 9%, and D's and F's decreasing by 23%.

Related Article: One Reason Personalization Fails? Customer Journey Mismanagement

The Power of Personalization

Personalization is a continual journey that requires sustained commitment, testing and optimization, and creativity. As customer expectations rise and change, personalization programs must adapt to deliver. Marketers’ assessments of themselves reflect, in part, the need to meet high expectations and a recognition of what’s become possible. In addition, as data, technical and other barriers continue to drop, and more companies pull cross-channel information into a single, unified profile, for immediate activation, marketers can deliver even more successful personalization.

The results now, though, are still impressive. Among the benefits marketers reported this year were:

  • A lift in business results (97%). This is much higher than in previous studies. Last year, 90% reported improvements, and 87% did in 2018. Plus, this year, nearly one in four marketers (24%) said they achieved a lift that’s higher than 20%.
  • Improved customer experiences (64%).
  • Increased conversion rates (63%).
  • Increased visitor engagement (55%).

Personalization Today

Throughout the years, our studies and similar ones have shown that delivering meaningful, high-quality customer experiences is an area that has grown in importance. And we’re at a time now when companies need benefits like the ones above more than ever. For many people — unable to visit the companies they do business with (not to mention visit each other) — it’s also a time when they’re craving connections. With data, technology and creativity, companies can redefine and reimagine those connections, and deliver them online. Personalization, for that reason, is more relevant today than ever.

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