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 ShopY​our​Way​.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?