Per­son­al­iza­tion. It’s a big word. I remem­ber when we first started talk­ing about per­son­al­iza­tion in the early days of ecom­merce, it was often short­ened to “P15N” (eas­ier to spell, but no eas­ier to say… I guess it was cool—at least where I worked!). Another thing about per­son­al­iza­tion: there are prob­a­bly as many (or more) def­i­n­i­tions of what it IS as there are let­ters in the word itself.

So here we are… 2012, and we’re once again talk­ing (a lot) about per­son­al­iza­tion. What does it mean today? Let’s start by talk­ing about 3 things it ISN’T:

  1. It’s not sim­ply a “per­son­al­ized” greet­ing: “Dear FILL IN THE BLANK, Val­ued Cus­tomer and Receiver of this Oh-So-Personal Email.” Cus­tomers are smart – they know when you’re really talk­ing to them and when you’re not. Be genuine.
  2. It isn’t a check-box. Today, busi­nesses are smarter than that. Yes, they know they need it, but they under­stand that a one-size-fits-all approach to per­son­al­iza­tion doesn’t work. Per­son­al­iza­tion (in its var­ied forms) must be tied to busi­ness goals, and opti­mized against spe­cific key per­for­mance indi­ca­tors (KPIs).
  3. And it’s not a black box. While per­son­al­iza­tion tech­nol­ogy relies heav­ily on math—and the desire for automa­tion is even stronger today—marketers are not com­fort­able relin­quish­ing all con­trol of their cus­tomers’ dig­i­tal expe­ri­ences to a machine. Don’t get me wrong: some­times noth­ing is bet­ter than set-and-forget (behav­ioral tar­get­ing is great for that and pro­vides amaz­ing results in the right sce­nar­ios), but as cir­cum­stances call for it, mar­keters want the flex­i­bil­ity to be hands-on—applying busi­ness know-how and uti­liz­ing what they feel is an appro­pri­ate data set for the task.

So who needs per­son­al­iza­tion? All busi­nesses need to pro­vide per­son­al­ized expe­ri­ences for their cus­tomers. What site vis­i­tor, shop­per or online bank­ing client wouldn’t say that they don’t desire a more rel­e­vant and per­son­al­ized expe­ri­ence? Enough said. And busi­nesses cer­tainly get this. So why did recent a recent Adobe sur­vey find that most busi­nesses are still doing very lit­tle to per­son­al­ize dig­i­tal expe­ri­ences, and why did an e-tailing group study late last year reveal that most online mer­chants give them­selves low grades for per­son­al­iza­tion? The answer comes down to a few things, all of which we’ll explore in series of posts we’ll pub­lish through­out the month of June. Let’s explore these briefly now, but I promise that a num­ber of my colleagues—experts in the area of dig­i­tal personalization—will con­tribute more to the conversation.

Things to think about:

  • Cul­ture and process: to what extent is your com­pany think­ing about per­son­al­iza­tion? Not just on the Web, but in every aspect of the busi­ness. One well-known sports apparel retailer we work with at Adobe encour­ages every­one in the com­pany to think about “the cus­tomer” all the time. Their staff room con­tains pods in var­i­ous loca­tions, each of which describes in detail a par­tic­u­lar cus­tomer pro­file or cus­tomer seg­ment. With this deep under­stand­ing of who they’re sell­ing to, this retailer has a sound plat­form from which to build great per­son­al­iza­tion strategies.
  • Busi­ness model and KPIs: what’s the pur­pose of your site? A very basic ques­tion, but one which many busi­nesses don’t ask them­selves enough. If the pri­mary pur­pose of your dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing efforts is to drive more leads into your sales fun­nel, then your per­son­al­iza­tion strat­egy must sup­port this goal. This may sound obvi­ous, but when you start to look at spe­cific KPIs around some­thing like lead gen­er­a­tion, many com­pa­nies find their efforts are not opti­mized to move the right needles.
  • It’s not the des­ti­na­tion, it’s the journey—and any jour­ney (any one worth tak­ing any­way) requires a map. I’ve been impressed by a num­ber of com­pa­nies I’ve talked to recently who shared their per­son­al­iza­tion roadmap with me. Given the com­plex­ity of dig­i­tal, and the fact that cus­tomers are shop­ping, con­sum­ing con­tent and oth­er­wise engag­ing online in so many ways, busi­nesses really need to take a look at how they ensure con­sis­tent, rel­e­vant and reward­ing expe­ri­ences from one touch­point to the next. I also really encour­age (if I may use another metaphor) a CRAWL, WALK, RUN approach when it comes to per­son­al­iza­tion. In upcom­ing posts we’ll explore dif­fer­ent per­son­al­iza­tion strate­gies that range from sim­ple, yet effective—to more sophisticated.
  • Data—it’s not how much you have, but what you do with it. Per­son­al­iza­tion is sim­ply not pos­si­ble with­out data. Algo­rithms, mod­els, col­lab­o­ra­tive fil­ter­ing, sim­ple seg­men­ta­tion, busi­ness rules… no mat­ter which approach, or com­bi­na­tion of approaches, per­son­al­iza­tion is only as good as the data it lever­ages. Today, dig­i­tal mar­keters have the oppor­tu­nity to get extremely close to their data. They can lean a lit­tle on their ana­lysts and obtain great insight into what’s going on in the busi­ness and how they can, in turn, use data to shape vis­i­tor expe­ri­ences. They can also access these great met­rics directly through intu­itive cross-sell tools that give them con­trol over which data sets should drive the rel­e­vance of prod­uct rec­om­men­da­tions in the shop­ping cart, for example.
  • Just when you think you’re done… you’re not. This should sound famil­iar because it’s what we always say about opti­miza­tion. That’s right—personalization is opti­miza­tion, or at least it should be viewed as the end result of your opti­miza­tion efforts. We also per­son­al­ize in our effort to opti­mize against our KPIs. Either way, per­son­al­iza­tion and opti­miza­tion are inex­tri­ca­bly tied. As mar­keters begin to see results from per­son­al­iza­tion (and they will), they’ll want the abil­ity to keep a close eye on the ball and con­tin­u­ally opti­mize to get the most out of these efforts.

I encour­age you to join the per­son­al­iza­tion con­ver­sa­tion this month, as we take a deeper look into the per­son­al­iza­tion top­ics I’ve raised in this post. If you hap­pen to be in New York City on June 13th, I invite you to Adobe’s Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing Sym­po­sium, where I’ll be joined by some per­son­al­iza­tion experts for a great discussion.