5 Keys To Making Personalization Actually Work

Personalization is the greatest, most brazen, overpromise in the world of marketing today.  Agencies promise to create personalized experiences for their clients’ customers, while brands clumsily serve up content in an assumptive manner hoping to increase conversion and relevance.

Yet, nearly all efforts fall short.  Why?  And how can we make personalization consistently deliver increased relevance and a higher value experience for our end customers?

Many confuse personalization with customization, and while there can be a direct relationship between the two, they are very different from each other.

Customization hands the controls to the customer and allows them to make all the choices themselves.  Nike ID is a very clear example of customization, as it makes no assumptions about what the customer wants, but rather enables one to dictate all aspects of the design of the shoe; from the model of the shoe to the color scheme and included materials.

Personalization occurs when the marketer or brand provides a specific experience or set of choices, based on what they know about the customer.  Netflix does this quite well with its “recommendations” list.  Customer decisions in a customization experience can create very useful data that can inform curated choices in future interactions with the brand, or “personalized” experiences.

As marketers are in the relationship business, brands often are compared to people.  Likewise, personalization is directly comparable to the process two people go through to get to know each other and become friends.  Not surprisingly, in personalization, we need to respect the same dynamics that exist in the creation of human relationships.

In this context, below are five principles to make personalization something more than just a marketing catch phrase.

1.  Treat Personalization As A Journey, Not A Destination

There’s nothing more annoying than someone whom you just met pretending to truly know you.  As the old saying goes, “you can’t make old friends.”  So don’t be assumptive.  Creating a personalized experience is something that is perfected and focused over time, and frankly an effort without a conclusive end.

Customers are people, and people are constantly changing.  They change their shopping preferences, their jobs, and even their life stages.  Stop sending me Thomas the Train ads – my kid is nearly nine-years-old and wants his own laptop, not Stanley the Steamer.  Personalization is a moving target, and that’s okay.  The goal is to get closer to the target each time in the interest of delivering maximum value for the customer.

2.  Personalization Is A Means To An End

No customer is asking for a personalized experience – they are asking for things to be relevant to them and of high value.  Marketers should reserve the term “personalization” for conference room debates, and instead concentrate efforts on how a personalization platform can increase engagement, relevance, and the effectiveness of each and every customer experience.

3.  The Key Ingredient Is Feedback

Just like getting to know someone, the process of evolving interpersonal exchange depends on iteration.  Without feedback, the journey of personalization is futile.  Feedback represents the collective clues (i.e., data) that will allow you to further focus the curated experience for each individual and provide new offerings.  Without feedback, the process stands still.

My favorite example of great personalization fueled by feedback is Pandora.  Thumbs up and thumbs down are exchanged for immediate optimization of your experience.  Don’t like that song?  You’ll never hear it again.  Based on the feedback, Pandora algorithmically informs future offerings.  In my opinion, Pandora is the current gold standard of personalization – simply brilliant.

4.  The Better I Know You, The Better I Can Get To Know You

If you make it easy to provide feedback and demonstrate an immediate “effect” of that input, then the customer will be encouraged to give more feedback.  Again using the Pandora example, users are motivated to provide feedback because the effects of that feedback are immediately obvious.  The customer clearly sees that the brand understands them; as a result, trust increases as well as their personal investment in the experience.  It’s that simple.

5.  Without A Platform, There’s No Foundation

The first step in the personalization effort is to create a purposeful platform.  The complexity of this can vary greatly as I’ve personally experienced, from a relatively simple “schedule builder” for a corporate conference to the algorithmic genius that is the AudiUSA.com website.  Regardless of the level of ambition, they share common components and functionality, including universal tagging of content, experiences, and intelligent feedback loops that inform future choices.

Platform also is critical.  In the spirit of transparency, I will reveal this is the single most challenging aspect of personalized customer experience design.  It’s complex and requires upfront investment.  I’ll save the overview of what specifically makes an effective platform and the method of creating it for a future article.

If we keep in mind the end goal of personalization, our customers will better react to our efforts, and we will maximize our investments.  We have the tools to curate experiences on an individual basis, which means we have the opportunity to deliver maximum relevance for each customer exposed to our efforts.  If it’s relevant, they will gain value.  If they gain value, they will likely become more invested in your brand.

Personalization efforts can be hugely effective if we follow the same principles we use when making friends. Don’t be the guy who does all the talking during the first date.  Instead, be the one who listens and adjusts the conversation to further build shared interests and passions.

Make friends, and remember… customers are people.  And people change.