January 7, 2020

Before you make the important move to creating a personalized customer experience, read this


Dear {enter executive name}, Expecting different results this year? Don't repeat past personalization strategies and expect success.

For the fifth year in a row, this is the year of personalization!

Personalization is still relatively new in the grand scheme of things and many companies are clamoring to implement it, without necessarily understanding why they’re doing it. The result?

A whole lot of, “Hi {ENTER NAME}!

This tick-the-box approach has a high opportunity cost. In Harvard Business Review’s seminal piece, “How Marketers Can Personalize at Scale,”1 authors found that “personalization can reduce acquisition costs by as much as 50 percent, lift revenues by 5 to 15 percent, and increase the efficiency of marketing spend by 10 to 30 percent.”2

Marketing executives know that delivering personalized customer experiences at scale has value, which is why chief marketing officers steadily divert budget spend to finding a winning formula.  Yet, personalization at scale is still falling flat for many companies. Seventy-four percent of the 60 organizations surveyed in Gartner’s 2018 State of Personalization Survey said “they are struggling to scale their personalization efforts.”3

So, how do executives bridge the expectation-reality gap and finally make 2020 the year of personalization for their company?

Make sure personalization is relevant to the customer.

Before we set off on another year of personalization, let’s review what successful personalization can look like for various industries.

Impactful personalization is rarely addressing someone by name in an email. Instead, benchmark personalization looks like:

  • Product recommendations based on what you’ve viewed or purchased.
  • Promotion emails timed based on your personal purchase frequency.
  • In-store availability flags based on your shoe size.
  • Not seeing stock that can’t be shipped to your geographic location.

These are just a few of the “easy” ways to make the customer experience more personalized. As personalization is a creative exercise, there are many more. Whatever the case, any personalization effort should be grounded to clear business goals and make relevancy to the customer of paramount importance. By maintaining that personalization always be relevant, and keeping it connected to a specific customer action, executives can avoid the pitfalls of the past (bland, creepy, mistaken, tardy…).

Understand the various forms of personalization 4

Symmetric messaging. A very basic personalization method is symmetric messaging. This is about matching what’s shown on the media channel to your landing page. For example, an ad on Facebook might have an image with some copy on it. When the person clicks through, the landing page image and copy reflect the ad. It’s not sophisticated but it reassures visitors that they’re getting what they came for in order to reduce bounce rate. This is super simple to set up and gives every customer coming from different channels a basic level of personalized experience.

Cosmetic personalization. The next level is single dimension personalization, or ‘cosmetic personalization’. This is where you personalize based on a single dimension, for example, location, weather, first time versus returning, etc. Most standard experimentation tools provide this style of personalization as part of their basic package.

Cosmetic personalization is simple to set up but needs a level of strategy to think through the experience design, the size of audience, the content experience and so on. It’s a little more complex than symmetric messaging, and powerful when done well.

Behavioral personalization. Focused on how a customer behaves on your site, this style of personalization uses behavioral information to target a contextual experience.

For example, you may notice that customers exit your store on a specific page, such as the category page. You might consider targeting these customers at the point of exit with a limited time offer if they purchase within a specific timeframe. Another common example of behavioral personalization is a cart reminder for a returning customer.

This style of targeting is super powerful if you see specific behaviors on your site.

One-to-one personalization. One-to-one personalization is a lot more complex. It requires you to stitch together data points from several sources to attain a more holistic picture of the customer. This might include a phone call to call centers, an in-person visit and/or a web chat as well as the webpage data collated to find the next thing the customer will be interested in.

Say the customer is looking for a home loan. They go onto a bank’s website and search for a home loan specialist and input their details to make an appointment. Later, they realize they can’t take the time, so they call in to change the appointment. A good one-to-one practice will, when they return to the website, reflect the updated time with a confirmation of the changed time.

This kind of experience requires cross-functional teams, heavy data analysis, technology and a lot of work. But it can pay off with extraordinary business results.

Connect the [personalization] dots.

Often, the data necessary to make personalization impactful is stored in different warehouses and managed by different teams. Bringing all of that data together in an actionable way is no small task.

Much of the true value of personalization lies in what companies already know (or should know) about their customers. Unfortunately, this data is scattered across different systems that can’t talk to each other (either for legal or technical reasons).

To keep up with digital marketing trends, executives are often tempted to put out personalization features that are not relevant or connected to business goals. These personalization efforts are usually based solely on on-site behaviors and random third-party data inputs. The dots are few and far between. Worse, no one is connecting them.

…personalization isn’t an endpoint, but a journey.

As a result, personalization initiatives that piece together internal data end up with Band-Aid solutions or transformative projects that outright fail.5 With key data siloed, personalization programs fail to show value and personalization is relegated simply to a budget cell that no one dare touch.

It’s a dangerous cycle that can really only be broken by understanding personalization isn’t an endpoint, but a journey

Crawl, walk, and run with personalization.

Rather than splurge on an expensive personalization tool, or premier a shiny “personalized” feature that has no clear business value to claim a “personalized experience,” begin the personalization journey with these steps. This incremental approach harnesses the power of digital experimentation to build the capability to deliver personalized experiences at scale.

Perfection is the enemy of the good.  One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is spending a long time planning for personalization before switching it on. But personalization isn’t a project that has an endpoint; it’s an ongoing practice.

Much like digital experimentation may not be the best use of every company’s budget, depending on their maturity, not every company should invest heavily in complex forms of personalization right now. But starting with simple formats is better than standing still or any “miracle tool.”

To help determine where you’re at in the journey, executives could consider discussing the questions in the sidebar article below. If there is ambiguity or uncertainty in the responses, then start with simple personalization features. Wherever you are in the journey, these steps outlined below may be helpful.

Find the activators (leaders) that will drive the initiative forward. Assemble a diverse personalization team comprised of leaders from data, design, development, product and/or marketing.

Aim to execute. Task the team to demonstrate effectiveness with a minimum viable personalization feature. To determine where to start, see the list of personalization types organized by complexity listed above. Your goal is to move up this complexity chain. Simple or complex, the feature should be relevant to the customer.

Have the team define the business goal associated with the personalization feature. Verify that the goal is measurable e.g. lower landing page bounce rate.  Set a timeline and/or benchmark to determine performance.

Share what the company learned internally. Whether the feature was a winner or a loser, undoubtedly, there are valuable customer insights and internal revelations (about processes, tools, and talent) to disseminate across the company. Ensure these learnings are utilized. As your team and features grow in sophistication, move up the complexity chain.

Choose relevancy over face-value personalization

Personalization is valuable, but don’t personalize for the sake of personalization. This year, aim to improve the customer experience in a way that accomplishes business goals. It shouldn’t always be “Happy Monday, Sarah!”; it’s empowering the visitor, lead or customer to take a business action.

James Flory is a senior manager of experimentation strategy at GO > North America.  Reach out to him to learn more about how to construct or optimize a lasting personalization success framework. 6

  1. Harvard Business Review (2015) How Marketers Can Personalize at Scale
  2. McKinsey (November 2016) Marketing’s Holy Grail: Digital personalization at scale
  3. Gartner (2019) Gartner’s 2018 State of Personalization Survey
  4. Section excerpted from Nima Yassini’s, GO Strategic Partner, Australia, Failing at personalisation? published December 2019. Spelling modified to U.S. English.
  5. GO Group Digital (December 2019) We know digital experimentation drives growth. But why?
  6. This article was inspired from James Flory’s original piece, Personalization trends and challenges: are you doing it right? at WiderFunnel.

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About the GO Group

The world’s leading experimentation experts build global experimentation programs and solutions for the GO Group. Contact the Group to learn how its experience and international setup can build or revitalize your experimentation program. The GO Group operates at the intersection of consultancy and conversion, enabling its enterprise clients to unlock business growth and value through the power of experimentation.

Learn more about the GO Group at www.gogroupdigital.com

Copyright © 2019 GO Group Digital. All rights reserved.


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