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.