The road to personalization success as promoted by marketing technology vendors, analysts, and others – all ostensibly with a dog in the race – is usually paved with rough, long, expensive toll roads. Here’s what you need to know to deliver on the promise of personalization.


In his latest blog post, my buddy Mark Demeny, Director of Content Management Strategy at Contentful, discusses personalization. For every CMO who heavily invested in a web content management (WCM) system with the capability to personalize the experience of a website visitor, his question is worth considering: “Is the hype around personalization dead?”

Like digital transformation, personalization isn’t an “Easy” button to instant revenue. The scenario preached by martech vendors where prospects and customers, hypnotized by hyper-personalized experiences jump headlong into acquisition, conversion, and retention buckets, cash in hand, is less than practical.

“Personalization is effective only when it is core to the experience across channels and is not just using gimmicky tricks to sell to a customer.” – Mark Demeny, Director of Content Management Strategy at Contentful

The Promise of Personalization

The fact is, personalization isn’t magical at all. It’s hard work, time-consuming, and expensive. The lack of upfront strategy, the inherent complexity of marketing technology used to implement personalization at scale, and the persistent disconnect between a company’s business and marketing goals make the likelihood of achieving a personalization initiative a long shot.

As Mark says, to get value from personalization (and the technologies that make it possible), “…you need to have a clear people, process and technology strategy to take advantage of those elements and avoid falling for the hype – and there is no magic bullet (and that includes “AI”).”

He continues, “While personalization is falling flat in a marketing sense, personalization has been used extremely effectively in a product management sense – if your customer experience is a product or being run as a digital product (with product managers, roadmaps, etc.), then you probably have many of the organizational structures and skillsets in place to be successful.”

I’ve suggested that when marketers build out a marketing technology stack using a plethora of different tools, they need product manager skills. But they’re marketers, not product managers (or IT managers), so the stacks they build don’t necessarily deliver on the promise.

Since the experience is the product, maybe Mark’s on to something here; one answer to the challenge of making personalization work might be a product management approach. The problem is marketers don’t usually make great product managers (and IT people don’t typically make great marketers). 

There’s often a lack of organizational structures and skillsets in place you’ll need to take this approach. Sure, you might make a new hire or two or perhaps borrow the expertise from other areas of the business. But both options would require a solid business case and some selling to management to bring to life.

Martin Eriksson makes a good point on the Mind the Product blog: “Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful – from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support.”

Personalization Takes a Village

That means it would indeed take a village to bring to life the product management approach to personalization. From my vantage point working in and with some of the largest organizations in the world, the villagers that comprise today’s corporate teams function in silos; they don’t often wander beyond the fortifications that surround their hamlets, except to forage for food or the occasional brief social encounter. Sound familiar?

Let’s face it; we’re in a bit of a pickle. We’ve spent a boatload of money on people and technology; we’re using only a fraction of the features and functions we’ve paid for (or in the case of a SaaS solution, we’re paying for). And we’re buying even more marketing technology to fill the gaps left by the lack of strategy that should have preceded any martech purchase. And we’re no closer to personalization nirvana.

Customer Experience, Content, and Data

I think there’s an argument to be made that the combination of customer experience, content, and data are the ingredients required to activate and sustain a practical personalization strategy. Understanding who your customers are, what they want from your brand, and how to give it to them is the holy grail of any marketing plan. That’s where you start.

By deeply understanding the customer experience and mapping the journeys of prospects, customers, and the workforce (because they have journeys, too), you’re able to create content that connects with their needs, wants, and desires – content they want to consume and share.

But it’s not just customer experience, content, and done. You’ve also got to leverage the valuable bubbling cauldron of data you’ve been collecting, whether it be:

  • First-party Data – Data you’ve collected about your customers or audience that you own and manage. It can be implicit data (e.g., behavioral) or explicit data (e.g., something the prospect or customer has shared).
  • Second-party Data – Someone else’s first-party data you’ve bought, borrowed, or bartered.
  • Third-party Data – This is rich behavioral or demographic data aggregated from many different sources.

When you connect your customer experience, content, and data strategies, you’re building a compelling competitive advantage that goes beyond cost, product, and service differentiation. 

The Road to Personalization

What if you worked on those strategies first? What if you put some time and effort into setting some SMART business and marketing goals? Then, defined what success looked like along with KPIs and a measurement plan? What if you did a little research into the who, why, and why of your target audience(s)? What if you broke down some of those silos and collaborated with other business units? Finally, what if you developed and aligned customer experience, content, and data strategies?

The answer is the same for any organization, whether it’s B2C, B2B, B2B2C, or some other combination of letters and numbers. First, you’ll have more clarity of purpose in your marketing efforts. I’ve seen way too many marketing organizations taking a “ready, fire, aim” approach, and the results are not conducive to long-term employment. 

Second, you’ll have a more meaningful understanding of your target audiences, including the problems they’re trying to solve and how to meet their needs. Spending the necessary time, effort, and brainpower on developing and activating robust customer experience, content, and data strategies will produce significant customer engagement, conversions, and loyalty.

The road to personalization success as promoted by marketing technology vendors, analysts, and others – all ostensibly with a dog in the race – is usually paved with rough, long, expensive toll roads. I’m not saying it’ll never happen for you, that you should give up. Not at all. What I’m saying is you need to have the right mindset (personalization isn’t magic), well-crafted and implemented customer experience, content, and data strategies, and a method for measuring success so you can measure, analyze and optimize.

Don’t Travel the Road to Personalization Alone

Just as important, please consider that you don’t have to make the trip alone. There are plenty of qualified partners out there you can engage with to help you through each step of the process. Similar to vetting your marketing technology choices, the same due diligence, strategic planning, and research should guide your partner selection.

 

 

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