Personalization is a term that has been around for many, many years.  However, it has fallen prey to the problem of an ever-changing marketplace coupled with an often outdated definition.  Ask 10 people what personalization means to them and you’ll get 10 different answers.

Google spat out over 39,000,000 results and here are just a few from the first page:

via TechTarget: On a website, personalization is the process of tailoring pages to individual users’ characteristics or preferences.

via Dictionary: to design or tailor to meet an individual’s specifications, needs, or preferences.

via Business Dictionary Inclusion of personal references in a direct mail offer.

What's a marketer to do?


A Naive Understanding of Personalization

In a study done by Venture Beat, a whopping 66% of companies say that using personalization would have an improvement on traffic and conversions.  On the flip side of that, 33% don’t.  The reasoning behind this is that personalization is often poorly executed, very manual, and highly misconstrued.  Consider this article as a means to redefine the outdated definition of what personalization really is.

Before delving into a more accurate definition of personalization, let’s go a little more in-depth on those persisting misconceptions of what personalization really is.  Now, I know that everyone at some point has gotten an email that looks like this:

“Hi ______, I heard you handled finance at ______ company and I wanted to talk about my company, _____.”

It’s overused, tired, and frankly is about as far from personalized as you can get. And yet, this is the first thing that people think when someone mentions personalization.  This example falls under the umbrella of “Mass Personalization.”  Is using someone’s first name in a stock message really personalization? Barely. In campaigns 5 years ago this was an absolutely acceptable form of personalization. However, Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook’s monitoring of your behavior and the content you interact with has changed the game permanently. By curating recommendations based upon those data sources, these old “mail merge” methods have become overwhelmingly one-dimensional and obsolete in the face of a new genre of personalization.


Dumb Missiles and Smart Missiles

In the earlier days of personalization, people were pleasantly surprised to see their name and/or company in an email.  It made them feel special to receive a “unique” message.  This approach can be likened to a “dumb missile,” or one that is blindly fired and hoping to hit the mark; a numbers game essentially.  Somewhere along the line, companies, including Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon mentioned above, challenged this deep-seated notion of personalizing content and actually devoted time to creating a unique experience for every user or reader that a site may have.  

One of the most famous instances of this comes from a little Silicon Valley company called Facebook (sarcasm intended).  Facebook is one of the most famous practitioners of this new notion of personalization.  Take a look at your Facebook feed and everything you’ve liked, every friend you have, every post you make will slowly change the way your newsfeed looks, what ads you see, etc.  Now look at someone else’s newsfeed and it will be noticeably different and personalized to their actions.  This is the case for every single user of Facebook.  This can be likened to a “smart missile,” or one that is fired and guided to hit its target audience; no longer a numbers game.  Now, ask yourself, does my company use “dumb missiles” or “smart missiles?”

Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon are companies that have truly cracked the code to personalization, through social, on-site, and other media.  In a sense, all companies that are working for or in the personalization space are chasing after this model they have created. However, instead of just large, multi-billion dollar companies producing this ability in-house for just their specific properties, brands seek to bring this idea of personalization to other verticals such as email, on-site, and mobile by leveraging powerful machine intelligence technology they can activate like a Machine-Learning-as-a-Service (MLaaS).  I’d like to delve a little deeper and give a specific example for each of these verticals to better paint the picture of what personalization has the potential to be for every brand.


Personalization for Everyone! (beyond social)

Social is just one dimension of personalization and, quite obviously, Facebook is the market leader.  Let’s take a step back and examine some other mediums that companies are using to leverage personalization.


Email Personalization, a very well-reputed food website, uses email as its main outlet for personalization.  Chow monitors both the behavior of their readers and also the content they interact with in order to craft emails that have information that is more relevant to each individual recipient instead of blasting out top content and hoping it drives traffic.


Onsite Personalization
For on-site personalization, a major player in this is Thrillist.  Again, instead of recommending just top or trending content on their site after reading an article, Thrillist pays attention and tracks what their readers view in order to provide content that would best resonate and enhance the overall on-site experience to incentivize them to continue reading.


Mobile Personalization
A great instance of mobile personalization is popular convenience store, 7-Eleven.  Not only is the app very handy but it is able to send product specific deals via push notifications.  This not only achieves a higher level of interaction with the app but can drive real world brand affinity all from well-timed and relevant mobile recommendations.


Rethink Personalization…

“When it comes to personalization, ask yourself: does my company use “smart missiles?”

As one can see, personalization is so much more than using someone’s first name in an email, and marketers are definitely starting to realize this but not quickly enough.  Part of the reason these 7-Elevens and Facebooks and Netflixes and Amazons are the anchor of this article is due in part to their early adoption of this smart approach to personalization. So if nothing else is taken away, be sure to ask yourself, “Am I leveraging personalization as a ‘dumb missile’ or a ‘smart missile’?”

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