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Personalization, Demystified: How To Be 'Spot On,' Not 'Creepy'


by Kevin Lindsay
Director, Product Marketing

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Article Highlights:

  • Why is it that the notion of personalization still eludes even savvy marketers and brands?
  • Personalization is outreach and digital alignment tied to recent interactions.
  • Cull more data, refine, personalize even more, then rinse and repeat.

If we, as consumers, can all agree on anything, it’s that we crave personalized experi­ences—a moment, a referral, an article, a product that makes you feel good because it’s so spot-on and delivered directly to you.

What’s more, when something fits so perfectly, we have a real visceral reaction—and that’s when ROI soars. 

So why is it that the notion of personalization still eludes even savvy marketers and brands? For many, it seems, personalization is that next step in the marketing chain. You know you need to be uber-relevant, but how do you get there?

I love to think of personalization in its simplest and most relatable terms. When I was a kid, the local grocer knew exactly what my mom wanted to buy every week. He held the special cut of meat and maybe even a bone for our dog. For me, the corner store clerk put aside the next comic book in the series and, at the candy shop, the owner tucked away my favorite treat until the next time I popped in.

That’s personalization—we always wanted it, we always bought it, we always came back. And that, very simply, is what you have to replicate across your wildly larger, infinitely more intricate, ever-changing online channels.

Start Here: The Basics
Even though you call them “anonymous”—the massive portion of visitors who are new to your Web site—the truth is you know something about every single person who lands on your platforms. If she’s a brand evangelist who wouldn’t dream of shopping/reading/connecting anywhere else except your site, great. But if she’s a first-timer who’s following an unpredictable path through your platform, you still know something—or somethings—about her.

When a new shopper walked through the doors of the corner store, the clerk could, at the very least, size her up. Young or old? Kids with her? Married or single? Local or visitor? Did she make a beeline for a particular aisle or product? You can do the same online. At the very least, you can know where she’s coming from—search, direct, email marketing efforts—as well as geolocation information and what device she’s using. So go ahead and engage with her accordingly.

Those first few critical connections—the acknowledgment that you see, hear, and understand her—are essential. Start slowly. Serve up the snow boots in January to the newcomer from New Hampshire when you know bad weather is coming. Offer a deal on grills when the weather warms up. See that she’s browsing on her mobile phone at the same post-work time every night? She might be searching for dinner on the train. Got a recipe, a 30-minute cookbook, or even a deal on takeout she might like? The more she engages with your brand, the more you can cull valuable data and determine who she is and what makes her tick. And the cycle of personalization continues.

So, granularly, what is personalization? I’m often asked that question. Very simply, personalization is outreach and digital alignment—such as personalized greetings; relevant ads, offers, or content; complementary product recommendations; and email marketing that follows—tied to recent interactions. There’s plenty more, but that’s a good jumping-off point. Now you’ll know it when you see it.

She’s Here—Now Build That Profile
As I mentioned, as the consumer digs in to your site and responds—or doesn’t—to your preliminary personalization efforts, you should be collecting and culling data on how, when, and in what circumstances she reacts. She’s not anonymous anymore. As your relationships grows and deepens, you should use it to your advantage (and hers!) by crafting a well-constructed profile, looking at behavioral variables, purchase and conversion patterns, and temporal considerations—when she visited and for how long, among other factors. In addition, examine her expressed preferences and purchase or engagement history.

Stir that in with what you knew from “go,” including geolocation data, device, platform, and source. Pretty soon a comprehensive picture will start to emerge, one that can inspire meaningful personalization that drives long-term connectivity and ongoing conversions.

Next step? Keep at it. In any great relationship you have to fan the flames, and this is no exception. Cull more data, refine, personalize even more, then rinse and repeat. Every journey through your site should be as compelling or even more compelling than her last.

Remember: At this stage it’s great to have data, but you have to be able to use it, or it simply doesn’t matter. That’s where automation comes into play. It’s borderline arrogant to assume you, as a human marketer, can make the kind of real-time adjustments and turns on dimes as a well-articulated automated system. Use your parallel expertise and knowledge of the customer to inform the rules and help your systems navigate the twists and turns that are no doubt coming. Take a bigger seat at the marketing table, but leave the data mining and experience delivery to (automated) experts.

So When Is It Creepy?
You’re up, you’re running, and here’s where I always get this question: Isn’t being too relevant a little creepy? Can personalization tactics ever work so well that they cross the line and teeter somewhere in the “are you actually watching me?” realm and turn customers off?

No—because that’s not personalization. That’s just plain creepy. And being creepy is never relevant.

Meaningful relevance emerges when content meets context. It’s a powerful alliance, for sure, and one that signals to the customer that you’re right there with her, in step and in the know. In these scenarios, the content—the recipe, article, sweater, discounted hotel stay—is precisely what she’s looking for, whether she knows it or not. And where and when it pops up—late afternoon on her work desktop when she’s thinking about dinner, while browsing for flights from her tablet at night, wherever it just makes sense—solidifies the all-important relationship, driving conversion and connectivity. During the exchange, more data points are collected and even more relevant experiences can be served up in real time and during future visits. Mission accomplished. And not at all creepy.

Truly spot-on relevance matters in the personalization conversation. Your customers are not captive audiences, with the patience to weed through the mountain of content on your site to find what they want. Very simply, if you don’t serve it up, they’ll go elsewhere—and, guaranteed, your competitors will have what they want waiting for them when they arrive. Thank the “Amazonification” of the shopping experience, or the ability to simply Google something and have it in front of you in a fraction of a second, but all customers demand the warm fuzzies that come with a perfectly personalized experience.

At the Adobe Summit in March, I rolled out my own “Relevance-o-Meter” (above) and encouraged the crowd to align their personalization efforts with its five buckets. Ranging from “polite neutrality” (not good) to questionably “creepy” (equally not good), this simple scoring system helps marketers keep an eye on the importance of creating authentic relevance, but not taking it too far. Think “spot-on” territory. But, again, it’s going to take consistent experience-creation and real-time relevance to not only grab consumers and keep them coming back again and again. What’s more, that’s the kind of relevance that creates deep brand loyalty and turns shoppers into lifelong ambassadors.

My ultimate takeaway is this: Personalization needs to be demystified. If the neighborhood grocer could get it right—I always bought the candy or the comic he had on hold for me—you can create meaningful, relevant experiences for your online consumers, too. You love when something is so spot-on for you that you’re compelled to act, and so do the people who visit your site. It’s a simple concept that carries a powerful punch.

Don’t be scared to really go “there” with your efforts. Keep personalizing and expanding on the relevant experiences. Your customers won’t be turned off—quite the opposite. For every spot-on experience, they’ll thank you in increased conversion, higher cart values, and enhanced ROIs. And that’s the kind of connectivity that can never be creepy.

About Kevin Lindsay

Kevin Lindsay heads up product marketing in San Francisco for Adobe Target. He is an expert on conversion optimization and personalization, and speaks frequently at industry events around the globe. Lindsay was with Omniture prior to its acquisition by Adobe, and previously held product and strategic marketing positions at search software companies Mercado and Verity. Lindsay is a Canadian expat who enjoys life with his family in the hills above Silicon Valley. Follow Lindsay on Twitter @kevlindsay.