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Understanding Personalization

By rwild
Jan. 5, 2015

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to work closely with some great opportunities along side our sales team allowing me time to explore some potential solutions way ahead of any full blown development cycle can kick off. During these sessions I noticed a common trend when the topic of personalization came up. 

  • Personalization was seen as vital strategy for business performance.
  • Businesses often feel held back by their current technology.
  • Reliable data sources for analytics are a problem.
  • Mobile approach is too desktop centric and goes no further than a responsive front end at best.
  • Personalization is seen as a high priority, but its extent, tactics and testing is an unknown quantity.
  • Personalization is still a young methodology for mainstream adoption, so the reality is far from the perceived dream.

All of the above points leave business decision makers in a state of limbo, most would welcome a personalization strategy and can be drawn to accept the benefits it could bring - but there lies the breaking point, its benefits are not a guarantee, if not delivered correctly could it do more harm than good, lets explore this a little further….

Firstly, What is personalization all about?

Rather than spiel out an explanation, please read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personalization.

Got it? Good.

There are several tools available for delivering a personalization strategy, I have been fortunate enough to explore the capabilities of the Acquia Lift suite in recent weeks, this I have to say brings all the best elements together in one place, delivering a smooth and sensible experience to all parties involved. As a Drupalist having all of this inside the regular admin interface is of major significance.

Getting Started – Project ground works.

For any successful project an understanding of the target audience is always explored, this is traditionally undertaken early in the project lifecycle by UX and business analysis experts, knowing your audience drives all decisions on design, content and structure. If you don’t know your audience you have already failed before the project has really got started. In essence your personalization journey has already started - The challenge now is that once this task is completed, it needs to reviewed on an on-going checkpoint basis – in reality it is rarely re-visited during the development lifecycle or adopted post launch business as usual. In the rare cases where it is then the impact and conclusions that are drawn become limited by the development in place so any changes in direction often come at a cost or re-work, which are then all too often deemed low priority.

Maybe we're already set for personalization?

Incredibly or not most projects are already prime for a personalization strategy to be considered, regardless of product life expectancy, technology stack or business need. Now to make a bold assumption: Most sites often have a homepage to landing page to article page structure, swap out landing page for category or range page and article page for product page for ecommerce orientated sites. The goal of personalization in these circumstances is to drive the user to the most relevant article or product page for them. Remember the user may not always enter the site via the homepage or any of the landing pages of course, but this doesn’t mean we are blocked, in fact it tells us more about the users as they are more than likely to have entered the site at a relevant point that a search engine or other referral source has suggested, an indirect touch of personalization data for free (excluding marketing costs for SEO etc).

In all these cases we should be able to define relevant changes in the content on the page that will be of interest to the user, this could be as subtle as altering the wording of the page headings or replacing the main hero image, or it could be more involved changes in content using a completely different selection of teasers and promotions. So regardless of the condition of our current site, considering a strategy now is not too late.

Defining the strategy

Once the decision is made to deliver a personalized approach, it’s time to decide on what can be targeted and more importantly why. At this point several factors come into play:

  1. To what extent would we like to personalize the site, what’s the driver behind making these alterations and what barriers do we face in achieving this.
  2. Do we have sufficient data and real time information on user behavior?
  3. Are we able to measure the success of the alterations intended?
  4. Can we test our tactics and strategies?
  5. Who will be responsible for maintaining this and what costs are involved?

Referring back to my most recent experiences with Acquia Lift a lot of the uncertainty is take away, using this tool the data required is ever increasing but more importantly so is the understanding of how to use this. Combine this with a real time reporting and self learning algorithm the decisions on what to personalize and to who improve with more use, more data and more review. The maintainer can react to shifts in users activity, can boost performing alterations and remove those not doing as well, these changes could reflect external factors too, taking into consideration geographical locations, time of year or connected world affairs, all in all the strategy at the start will be very different to that in use 48 months down the line, it will mature and very highly tuned. Compare this to the traditional stance of knowing your users before development starts and working from there approach, believing your users don’t change in 48 months is naive at best. Now it’s really time to rethink personalization adoption.

Measuring the success

This is the real art of personalization and every business will have its own definition of success. In simple circumstances this is where common sense and understanding on the data gathered comes into play. Has the bounce rate dropped? Has page view time increased? Has user density increased? All these questions can be answered simply from the statistical reviewing the user analytics, but what other impacts can we measure, some prime examples could be:

  1. Increased conversions – have sales or target user action goals increased?
  2. Conversions made easier for the user – has the time a user takes to make a sale or undertake an action improved?
  3. Has return visitors increased?
  4. Have you developed a stronger brand identity and loyal customer base?
  5. You now empowered with data to produce marketable sales opportunities and other leads for accurate cross promotion, this may lead to an increase in affiliate revenue or 3rd party contributions to business costs.

In conclusion

Looking at what makes sites truly fantastic with user enrichment, nothing right now seems to be as relevant as relevance itself - creating it, harnessing it, leveraging it and finding the sites that offer more of it. Businesses that can tap into this relevance will begin reaping the major benefits that almost always comes with it: the personalization payoff.  It’s a two-way relationship; a highly cooperative brand-to-consumer relationship. The business wins with increased return on investment whilst the users win with bigger, better, faster and more relevant experiences that keep them coming back- the payoff continues and the circle continues to snowball.

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