The results are in, and “opti­miza­tion” is clearly top-of-mind with mar­keters and cor­po­rate deci­sion mak­ers around the globe. Despite their vastly vary­ing busi­nesses, one thing uni­ver­sally bub­bled to the top: per­son­al­iza­tion is key. That shouldn’t sur­prise anyone—where isn’t an increased con­ver­sion rate and enhanced return on invest­ment (ROI) at the top of an organization’s “must-have” list?

This year’s sur­vey polled more than 1,000 respon­dents from across North Amer­i­can, Europe, the Mid­dle East, Africa, and Asia and, no mat­ter the indus­try, 75 per­cent of respon­dents indi­cated per­son­al­iza­tion is impor­tant to their organization’s long-term goals—but most aren’t quite there yet, lim­ited by bud­gets, times, or skillsets. How­ever, with envi­able con­ver­sion rates for the top 20 per­cent of respon­dents (they’re show­ing greater than 4.5 per­cent con­ver­sions or more, ver­sus 2.6 per­cent across the field), we all, as mar­keters, need to set our sights on get­ting there.

“It’s clear that deliv­er­ing per­son­al­ized expe­ri­ences is essen­tial to con­vert­ing vis­i­tors into cus­tomers,” said Michael Krypel, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Adobe Dig­i­tal Con­sult­ing and author of Refin­ing Design for Busi­ness: Using Ana­lyt­ics, Mar­ket­ing, and Tech­nol­ogy to Inform Customer-centric Design. “As these top per­form­ing com­pa­nies show us, invest­ing in a research-based approach through test­ing and opti­miza­tion allows them to make bet­ter deci­sions and real­ize sig­nif­i­cant returns.” 

So what do top per­form­ers do that the bot­tom 80 per­cent doesn’t? Plenty. Here’s a topline roundup, but I’ll have even more on the topic—specifically more from Michael—in the com­ing weeks, all emerg­ing from his deep dive into 20 lead­ing companies.

They test, test, and test some more, so “next steps” are meaningful

Tests, for the top 20 per­cent, are seen as crit­i­cal decision-making tools through which any­thing can be eval­u­ated. It’s likely no sur­prise, then, that 70 per­cent of these top per­form­ers used a vari­ety of test­ing meth­ods and capa­bil­i­ties, com­pared to less than half for the remain­ing respondents.

The biggest hold up could be cul­tural, as shift­ing from “gut-driven” to data-driven can be a hur­dle for orga­ni­za­tions. But this approach is more crit­i­cal than ever: com­pa­nies who move to optimization-driven deci­sions increase con­ver­sions by upward of 100 percent.

To get there, stick to the basics. Keep the data clean and con­sis­tent and let it dic­tate pri­or­i­ties. Deter­mine your key per­for­mance indi­ca­tors (KPIs) and how you’ll gauge suc­cess, and bring stake­hold­ers into the con­ver­sa­tion early on so they’ve got skin in the game. Then, when you’ve got those first few wins, shout it from the rooftops. Buy-in comes on the heels of those suc­cesses, so strike while the iron is hot.

The money/mouth equation

Once you’ve nailed down those first few wins, gain­ing bud­getary sup­port gets that much eas­ier. The top 20 per­cent are 54 per­cent more likely to allo­cate more than 5 per­cent of their bud­get to test­ing and opti­miza­tion, ver­sus 44 per­cent from the over­all pool who spend less than 5 percent.

Nat­u­rally, it’s all connected—organizations that invest more gen­er­ate higher con­ver­sion rates, which can become that crit­i­cal rein­vest­ment down the road. But, again, it all starts with those first few attain­able wins, for busi­nesses big and small.

Another inter­est­ing find­ing to note is where that money’s going. When asked which cus­tomer expe­ri­ence tac­tics they uti­lized, the bot­tom 80 per­cent and top 20 per­cent ordered the 16 tasks iden­ti­cally, with web­site ana­lyt­ics tak­ing the top spot—89 per­cent of the top 20 ver­sus 80 per­cent of the bot­tom 80—followed by social media ana­lyt­ics, social shar­ing, email opti­miza­tion, and cus­tomer reviews. How­ever, top per­for­mances were 46 per­cent more likely to be using opti­miza­tion capa­bil­i­ties over­all, with areas like audi­ence seg­men­ta­tion, mobile ana­lyt­ics, and A/B test­ing show­ing the great­est sep­a­ra­tion between top and bottom—111 per­cent, 90 per­cent, and 60 per­cent, respectively.

Con­tent should be targeted

Con­tent has long been king and, in this relationship-driven era of dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing, that crown has never mat­tered more. Adver­tis­ers and brands demand those unique, organic, content-driven expe­ri­ences. The top 20 per­cent were 43 per­cent more likely to be using con­tent tar­get­ing on their sites. Sim­i­larly, more than four in five were more likely to use data and automa­tion to steer deci­sion making.

Be wise—democratize

By democ­ra­tiz­ing your efforts, you’ll be tap­ping into experts in those niche pock­ets of your orga­ni­za­tion who, oth­er­wise, may not be part of the con­ver­sa­tion, but who can move the nee­dle in major ways. Top per­form­ers were 88 per­cent more likely to tap into other depart­ments for con­tri­bu­tions and expan­sions and, in exchange, those orga­ni­za­tions saw a lift in con­ver­sions from 2.6 per­cent to 4.3 per­cent. The take­away? Make your efforts inte­gral to everyone’s suc­cesses and day-to-day busi­ness processes, and you’ll have the kind of mean­ing­ful buy-in that dri­ves inno­va­tion and success.

But it goes fur­ther. The most suc­cess­ful brands auto­mate their efforts to ensure max­i­mize real-time effi­cien­cies. Top per­form­ers are 36 per­cent more likely to uti­lize automa­tion for test­ing and shar­ing wins. The ben­e­fits are clear. As I’ve said before, it’s irra­tional to think you, as a human mar­keter, can make the kind of real-time turns and mean­ing­ful con­sumer con­nec­tiv­ity that an auto­mated sys­tem can. Nat­u­rally, they need mar­keters keep­ing their fin­gers on the pulse of the cam­paign, but democ­ra­tiz­ing to the machine is incred­i­bly crit­i­cal to grow­ing rel­e­vance at scale.

Mobile mat­ters

The top 20 per­cent far out­shined the bot­tom 80 per­cent in the mobile bucket: more than four in five deemed mobile an impor­tant piece of their cross-channel mar­ket­ing efforts this year, ver­sus just two in three of the remain­ing orga­ni­za­tions. How much does it mat­ter? Lots. Nearly one in three respon­dents said 21–40 per­cent of traf­fic comes from mobile, includ­ing smart­phones, tablets, and apps, and 11 per­cent saw 41–60 per­cent from this source. And that number’s only going to increase.

Start by look­ing at the num­bers you’ve got. Nearly half of all retail traf­fic comes from mobile so, if you’re an e-commerce site, you’ve likely already got some good data. Enhance it with geolo­ca­tion infor­ma­tion (one of the beau­ties of mobile mar­ket­ing) and serve up a rel­e­vant offer based on loca­tion and see where it takes you.

Finally, look at your exist­ing site. Is it mobile enabled? Do you need a com­ple­men­tary app? The sur­vey seems to say yes: mobile con­sumers spend four times as long in a tablet app and 2.5 times longer in a smart­phone app ver­sus a web­site on the same device. Con­cerned with crit­i­cal mass? Global app down­loads are set to hit 300 bil­lion by 2016. Everyone’s using them.

As in pre­vi­ous years, this com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey deliv­ered an in-depth look at a broad swath of indus­tries and orga­ni­za­tions, from the opti­miza­tion mature to the ad hoc testers. How­ever, it’s those top per­form­ers who are step­ping up their opti­miza­tion game and, like­wise, reap­ing the ben­e­fits in a big way. If there are hur­dles within your orga­ni­za­tion, now is the time to leap over, bust through or wow with your optimization-driven wins. What­ever it takes, it’s time to test, opti­mize, and personalize.

I’ll go even deeper into this when we look at Michael’s book and some of 20 com­pa­nies he tapped into for their prac­ti­cal approaches to lever­ag­ing data and inform­ing customer-centric designs—think power play­ers like Amer­i­can Express, Dell, Face­book, Google, High­tail, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Wash­ing­ton Post. It’s excit­ing stuff—this is just the tip of the iceberg.