Lately, it seems every digital business is launching a new personalization initiative. A 2015 survey found 78 percent of respondents agree or strongly agree it’s important to “try to differentiate through customer experience.” Realizing a practical, realistic plan to implement a personalization strategy—let alone a profitable personalization strategy—remains a formidable challenge. One of the problems is deciding what “personalization” means.
One of the biggest promises of personalization is that it will move beyond targeting—focusing site content and experiences to address a specific group—and tailoring, in which the focus is on an individual member of such a group. Simplified to the extreme, it’s the difference between marketing to recreational soccer players in New England and recreational soccer players in New England like you.
While this move toward a one-to-one experience is upheld as the paragon of personalization success—and the ideal businesses must strive for to remain competitive—there is reason to question whether such fine-grained adaptation of marketing is even desirable. Besides being impractical from both a technology and resource perspective, fine-grained tailoring of web experiences has been found to have varying impacts on actual consumers.
For example, adjusting language to match perceived gender preferences has been found to underperform non-targeted gender-neutral language for some retailers. Perhaps more interesting, tailored, personalized, digital advertising has been found to increase positive perceptions of both the advertiser and the host of the ad but also decrease total page engagement. It’s the difference, for example, between browsing several product pages or just one.
For the most part, businesses that are currently using personalization are utilizing some form of product recommendation engine. Increasing the relevancy of these suggestions, clearly, increases their appeal to shoppers. Adjusting the positioning, presentation, and prominence of products across an entire site is the natural extension of this approach. But there’s a reasonable question to be asked whether this is the most effective application of personalization.
Providing more or less product information according to shopper preferences or behaviors has been found to improve conversion when such changes can increase the relevancy of the site design and content. Shifting the design to not only generate specific cognitive effects but also emotional ones has also been found to increase attention and engagement with a website.
In one way or another, all of these approaches focus on changing the substance of a product—perhaps not its physical characteristics or features but at least the way in which it is positioned and understood. In some ways, we can think of this as “Starbucks” personalization—an astonishing number of combinations are available from a relatively small set of base components and, as we combine these components to suit our individual tastes, we construct a branded experience that is perfectly tailored and inherently non-portable.
The alternative is personalization that doesn’t necessarily adapt the product, but rather the process we follow to obtain it. A website that adjusts its navigational taxonomy in response to user behavior—opening new and relevant opportunities to jump across categories and also into and out of them at various depths—helps push shoppers toward purchase at a pace is most suitable their needs. Implementing such a personalization strategy opens opportunities to test directed or discovery-oriented segmentation approaches, essentially either guiding shoppers down a specific path or allowing navigational options to emerge organically.
We can think of this latter strategy as the “Google” approach to personalization. The search leader effectively personalizes our paths across all of the indexed pages of the Internet. Its simple natural-language interface allows the service to adapt perfectly to our specific needs—whether those needs are cognitive, emotional, or functional. Through progressive improvements in relevance, informed by our tendencies to search certain topics and click specific links, the distance between the blank search bar and the best destination shrinks. This same approach can be applied on a much smaller scale to lead shoppers from the homepage, through relevant product options to the cart and checkout, taking exactly as much or as little time as that shopper needs.
Ultimately, a single definition of personalization will never suit the needs of every website. Instead, personalization strategy itself must be tailored to suit the needs of every business. Knowing which one is most appropriate for your business will help guide your strategy and put you on a path toward not only personalization, but effective, profitable personalization.