A truly great piece of personalized digital marketing is simple and disarming. It’s like pushing your way down a crowded street in a foreign city when, out of nowhere, someone calls your name. You stop in your tracks and look. Even if you don’t quite recognize the person looking back, you feel a rush of gratitude that they recognize you. You’re happy to stop and talk.

Now imagine that person knows you like South Indian food, so they recommend an authentic spot around the corner. Or they ask, “How’s your sister?” and point you toward a market where you can find her the perfect souvenir.

That’s how it feels when personalized content hits the mark. You might be in the middle of downloading an e-book, checking an email, skimming a blog, and texting your mom, and there it is: something that stands out from the noise instead of just adding to it. You like it because, one way or another, it says you’re special.

When Pizza Night Gets Personal

I recently encountered a great example of personalized marketing in the form of a pizza box. A local pizza shop started shipping out deliveries with one-of-a-kind illustrations hand drawn on the inside of the box. Delivery guy shows up, you hand him your cash, hopefully you tip, and he’s gone. A totally typical, forgettable transaction, until you flip open the lid and find something like this:

Pizza box

(Courtesy of Ethan Harper, Copyright 2012)

Now you’re thinking about ordering more pizza just for the custom made surprise.

What makes this work for me? Sure it’s corny, but it exhibits a few qualities I like and respect: creativity, a willingness to go the extra mile, and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. These are qualities I like to think I exhibit as well, which makes it all the more powerful.

Going Digital, Getting Visionary

The pizza box illustration might not do it for everyone, but that’s the point of personalization. Perhaps this little pizza shop could take it to the next level with an online ordering system that asks customers questions and collects the data. Like, say, what’s the occasion? The in-house artist could see if the pizza is headed to a frat party or a kid’s birthday and illustrate accordingly. That’s not so different from how we aim to use personalization in digital marketing.

In the digital realm, personalization can take many forms. In its simplest, it offers convenience, like when an e-commerce site remembers your payment data and shipping address. If I have to tell you my phone number, email, birth date, and security code every time I make a transaction, I’m going think twice about buying. Personalization removes the all that unnecessary friction.

In its highest form—when a piece of digital marketing jumps from ordinary to visionary—it speaks to the individual about something they love, or something that defines them. It’s the difference between showing an avid marathoner a recommendation for running shoes, and showing that same marathoner an excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s running memoir, a downloadable mp3 running mix, the latest speed training technique, and a recommendation for running shoes.

But Does it Convert?

If a pizza shop can nail personalization, why do so many digital marketers fall short? Some resist personalizing content altogether, ignoring the proven trends. In a recent Digital Optimization Survey performed for Adobe by Econsultancy, only 22% of respondents said they used the profile or behavior of visitors to drive personalization of their site content. Despite the growing evidence that it brings results, surprisingly few companies took advantage of content personalization to convert customers in the last year.

Pretty soon, however, that statistic is going to change. This year’s State of Retailing Online, an annual joint report by Shop.org and Forrester Research, found that “optimizing the overall online experience” topped the list of web retailers’ priorities, above investing in mobile apps and advertising. That’s because the numbers don’t lie. By now many companies have tested various user experiences, and seen that personalization efforts create a spike in conversion rates again and again.

Using even the most basic personalization techniques on your site can significantly boost conversion rates. When Build.com added product recommendations to its merchandise pages, its conversion rate jumped 23% with a 9% percent increase in average order value.  The web retailer saw these results within one month of using Adobe solutions to analyze key visitor data. The company started to look at what the visitor browsed before reaching the site, what they have searched and purchased in the past, and what they are currently viewing.

What’s the ultimate proof of content personalization’s power? How about a couple of unsexy big box stores engaging visitors and making them feel like more than retail sheep. Sears and Kmart saw a 25% bump in Web sales in one quarter, thanks to their ShopYourWay.com campaign. They targeted Niki Minaj and Adam Levine fans with dedicated web stores for each artist complete with integrated social media, tailored suggestions, and coupons. And in the wake of Hurricane Sandy the company had a real stroke of genius: they sent personalized offers to people in affected zip codes, and started monitoring weather patterns to remind customers to buy snow shovels and batteries.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Before you rush off and add some half-baked targeting methods to your site, a word of warning. Remember that Digital Optimization Survey I mentioned earlier? Among businesses that did try some form of personalization, only 15% said customers had a “very positive” reaction to their efforts. A disappointing 42% said it was “somewhat positive” (read: mediocre conversion rates), and 39% responded with “no opinion” (read: we’ve barely got a pulse).

There are too many success stories with personalization to suggest that it’s not a good tactic. Instead, the numbers tell me that companies aren’t getting visionary with their marketing strategies. They are using the bare minimum, tired personalization techniques that merely meet visitors’ expectations. I’d wager that the 15% with the very happy customers understand the individuals who make up their data stream and find one-of-a-kind ways to speak to them.

Visionary digital marketing goes beyond the basics of personalization—now standard on most sites—and uses advanced techniques to respond to each person’s unique and complex interests. So if you’re still trying a one-size-fits-all approach, and your bottom line’s not budging, ask yourself one question: How can my company stop speaking to the crowd and start speaking to individuals?