By now we’ve established that personalization is critical, whether a site visitor is a known entity or an anonymous newcomer. But, with most visitors falling into that “unknown” bucket, the next logical question becomes “but how much personalization is enough?” If you don’t have that deep, meaningful connection with the visitor, stemming from a conversion-based history, how far can you take your personalization efforts—and if you miss, will you miss so hard that it actually alienates instead of aligns?

“Personalization” is really a blanket term for a host of experiences and actions driven by an organization’s knowledge of its consumers. When done right, personalization is a powerful force that creates long-term brand affinity, consumer loyalty, more streamlined—and faster—conversions, and greater overall return on investment (ROI). Customers feel good about your brand because you’ve elevated them to “special” status, and are wholly focused on their unique needs. The better they feel, the more they engage, providing implicit and explicit insights into their wants, needs, hopes, and dreams along the way. They become shoppers, loyalists, and, maybe, even brand evangelists.

But what about those first few interactions, when you don’t quite know what makes the customer tick? Although you don’t know the individual, you likely know someone who, at least at first, seems similar—maybe the known customer is also from San Francisco. Maybe they both come to your site via tablets, during the after-dinner hours. Maybe they both looked at some popular women’s running sneakers you’re promoting on your homepage, brand loyalist from a direct hit, and the newcomer from a search.  

For marketers, these personas are essential to driving relevance at scale. You no doubt have already developed these overviews and in-depth profiles of various target consumer buckets, based on who moves the needle for your brand. They’re the working moms on the move, the socially driven millennials, the empty nesters who want simplified experiences. They are, in essence, cardboard cutouts representing who your organization considers the core consumer, and what they personify. You might not know the newcomer checking out the shoes, but the individual’s actions are starting to resemble those of someone you’ve seen before! Although an in-depth, accurate consumer profile might not spring to the surface, a persona is emerging. And that’s a powerful segmentation tool, too, if you can be flexible and let the data signals steer the way.

Start with “Personas” Then Graduate to “Personification”

Personification, very simply, can be defined as “the representation of a thing or abstraction in the form of a person, as in art,” or “the person or thing embodying a quality or the like.” In terms of personalization, personification brings together qualitative and quantitative data, leveraging constructed consumer prototypes for those first few interactions, then changing and adjusting your perception and experience creation as the visitor shares more and more personal information. By matching real-time behaviors of the anonymous user with past behaviors and expressed preferences of known visitors, organizations can make assumptions and predictions about these anonymous consumers’ patterns and preferences.

Marketing to visitors based on whom and what they personify can be an effective, highly actionable tool for marketers. Instead of thinking in the abstract, personas have clear-cut attributes and behaviors—again, think the busy mom, the millennial, and the empty nester. It’s not spot-on, but personas give strong first steps to sniffing out consumer needs. From here, you can choose to refine the persona or “graduate” users to a more personalized experience based on expressed desires, engagements, and conversions—or you might not. For some brands, personification works just fine.

Another benefit? A more detailed targeted consumer profile may start to emerge. Like I said, you no doubt have two, three, or even more personas circulating, but this can be a major step in refining not just your optimization strategy but also your media and marketing plans in general. From what magazines to advertise in to what events and promotions you should look to roll out, you’ll be painting a broad strokes picture of who’s interested and who’s buying, which can help you seek them out in other, more traditional corners of their lives.

Next: Contextualize It for Them

Now that you know all about your audience—some in broad swaths, some very deeply—your organization can tap into those profiles to develop meaningful, targeted content and contextual interactions. Remember, the name of the game is connecting consumers with relevant experiences across all channels, and contextual connections are just that. Think standard first, such as:

  • Geolocation-based content, be it an app serving up restaurant recommendations on users’ home turf or delivering a deal on snow boots when the weather takes a turn on the East Coast.
  • Mobile- and tablet-enabled content and adaptive design, making the experience for these users more seamless. Think connecting these users with the right amount of optimized content, products, and services for their specific experiences.
  • Path-driven recommendations, following consumers as they browse, read, engage, and convert.

Contextual experiences should be adaptive and predictive, and can stem from manual processes—which require marketers to create rules that dictate when, where, and why content is served up—or automatic processes, which are based on prior behaviors for the person or the persona. Either way, though, connecting the personification and contextualization dots can push organizations toward the all-important “relevance at scale” goal. When the mandate is just significant, one-on-one personalization, this kind of scale can seem unattainable to many small and medium businesses. In this scenario, you just need a persona or profile, past data, and real-time access.

My key takeaway: personalization still reigns supreme. Personification and contextualization can and should be tapped into as well. They’re both powerful forces under the personalization umbrella. Delivering relevance at scale can be a daunting task even for the most sophisticated organizations. What consumers crave is that spot-on experience that solid personalization, in any form, delivers. Developing personas, aligning users with those “cutouts,” and personification through targeted content, contextualization, and messaging can help organizations better deliver relevant experiences to the evangelist and the unknown, and drill down on the core segments that make up an audience. And from here, your personalization efforts can truly boom in scope and scale, developing, growing, thriving, and delivering as the needs of your brand evolve and adjust.