Understanding the possibilities of personalization

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How to make the best use of available technology remains a perplexing mystery for most businesses, writes Mirum's business director

To borrow from behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s famous quote about Big Data: Personalization "is like teenage sex: Everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it …"

It’s an adage that holds true across many of the buzzwords in our industry — programmatic, marketing automation, big data … The list goes on and on.

This phenomenon often stems from the fact that such complex advances in technology paint a picture of a far-off future, with its implications only ever really illustrated at the most extreme level. How to make best use of the available infrastructure at a day-to-day level remains a perplexing mystery for most businesses.

We know we should be using this technology, we know that it’s meant to be fantastic, but we’re not really sure how to leverage it practically. What happens then is that we get lost in a world of rhetoric and "strategy," with no clear guidance.

Perhaps it helps to narrow down the scope of the conversation and reframe personalization. It has, after all, been a feature of digital for over a decade.

Google, Amazon and Facebook are perhaps its most famous proponents of this. No two Google searches are the same for two different people, and we’re all familiar with how Facebook has built a business about favoring the most relevant content for its users (not to mention the challenges this represents to brands).

With Amazon, its use is even clearer as it leads to direct monetization for the retail giant. Just visit the homepage or take a look at any email Amazon has sent you and imagine how much likelier you are to purchase something thanks to its recommendation engine.

But for brands that aren’t digital behemoths, personalization has now become ever more accessible and applicable. L’Oréal, undoubtedly a sizeable brand in its own right, deploys personalization with a level of tactical excellence that’s rare. Whether it's serving relevant content and featuring appropriate products to users on its site through some well designed self-segmentation options; delivering trusty old emails (perhaps the first form of personalization in digital); or deploying more avant-garde real-time marketing, it offers examples that many smaller brands can look to emulate.

Perhaps though, it is in the B2B sector where the use of personalization is really accelerating. In an environment where the value of leads is extraordinarily large and offerings are often more complex and confusing, improving the customer experience by even a fraction of a percentage point can deliver incredible financial returns.

Some businesses are using this to startling effectiveness — such simple executions as having different text or calls to action per identified users, to more elaborate programs where unique creative is developed and deployed per segment.

Some are getting it wrong as well — calling out users by name or referencing other sensitive data can result in negative consequences in this day and age. We all know we could deploy this technology, but a question remains on whether we should.

The answer probably lies in the method of execution. Brands who have deployed personalization have typically seen overwhelmingly positive results. Getting it wrong really requires some heavy-handed tactics that are easy and obvious enough to avoid.

And the investment required for personalization doesn’t have to break the bank. There are solutions such as Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Marketo, Acquia Lift and a number of others that are the obvious candidates. But there are also simpler, cheaper solutions.  

Visual Website Optimizer and Frosmo are two solutions that are light and easy to deploy solutions. The latter is particularly well known for its ability to personalize against anonymous website traffic, using behavioural data (versus the captured personal data used by most marketing automation software).

Delivering these solutions are relatively easy, with pretty simple executions (such as a different link, article or call to action). The trick comes in delivering them well and dealing with the particulars of your own business. Some businesses have complex multi-site online ecosystems with different aspects of their brands across multiple dimensions (based on locations, customer, type of solution, etc.).

And just how far should we personalize content? Should every email to every user in your database contain completely unique content, or should it be segmented into four key variations?

Mapping the relevant content and user journeys through this ecosystem against the appropriate segments is where real craft is required. Understanding the technical possibilities and requirements adds a layer of complexity. And perhaps what terrifies brands the most is figuring out a way to map the key signals that determine what segment a user falls into.

Plugging this into programmatic advertising systems takes these efforts a step further, but in the spirit of keeping the focus on what is feasible and immediately actionable, that is a conversation best left for another day.

It is in this confluence of content, understanding users, business context, knowledge of data-privacy limitations, technological appreciation and comfort with quantifying signals that the real magic happens.

Deploying teams that can work through seemingly incompatible areas of business is not easy. But it is critical to real success.

Carlos Menezes is business director with Mirum.

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