Ged's mug: a personalized mug

The path to one-to-one personalization is straight ahead

personalized mug

Nearly three-quarters of retailers in North America agree that personalization is a top priority for attracting and keeping customers in 2017. Chances are a much smaller percentage agree on what “personalization” actually is.

OK, that’s a little snarky. Everybody knows what personalization is, generally speaking — providing consumers with a tailored experience based on who they are. The thing is not everybody means the same thing when they talk about personalization.

The statistic on top priorities for retailers comes from a recent eMarketer report that in many ways points out why personalization — and defining it — can be so agonizing for retailers.

First, there is little doubt that personalization is on retailers’ minds — and priority lists. In fact, they clearly see it as a two-pronged challenge: personalizing commerce and personalizing content.

The February eMarketer report, “Personalization Retail Roundup,” cites a survey by Boston Retail Partners that found that 70 percent of retailers placed personalizing their customers’ experiences at the top of the list for engaging consumers.

Furthermore, 40 percent of IT experts who implement content management systems for companies, said the inability to personalize the shopping experience within the CMS was a main frustration for their customers, according to a survey by Sitecore, also cited by eMarketer.

Indeed, 25 percent in the Sitecore survey said that the e-commerce features of the CMS that their customers were using were not sophisticated enough to support personalization, according to eMarketer.

The focus on personalization is hardly a surprise, given that this is the era of customer experience. Retailers and others offering goods and services online realize that consumers expect more, both in the physical world and in their digital experiences.

The future of personalization

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In the age of Google, digital consumers expect to find what they are looking for. They expect to be offered relevant and helpful search results, whether they are hunting for products or information.

And how does that happen? Personalization. Retailers have known this for years and many have made big strides in targeting known customers and segmenting the vast pool of consumers who could become customers.

Targeting and segmenting are great, but they are not enough. Consumers today expect one-to-one personalization. They expect retailers to know them and know what they are after in the moment.

The eMarketer report, which is a compilation of research on personalization, points out something of a disconnect in marketers’ view of personalization. For instance, consider that 70 percent figure. Yes, 70 percent of retailers say personalization is at the top of their lists. But the same survey found that only 33 percent of retailers listed “disseminating data across all channels in real time” as a priority.

How do you do one without the other? For personalization to be meaningful, retailers need to know their customers no matter where they are or what device they’re on. Consumers, after all, move seamlessly among smartphones, laptops and physical stores — often during the same shopping excursion.

“It’s becoming more cross-channel than I ever imaged it would,” Marissa Tarleton, a CMO at RetailMeNot told eMarketer in an interview included with the report.

Imagine the frustration for a consumer using all those device and channels, only to have to start over with each new channel.

Again, one-to-one personalization is hard. It relies on vast amounts of data representing web-wide user behavior across devices, digital sites’ products and content and the context of a consumer’s shopping trip.

Getting past targeting and segmentation needs the help of machines, machines that understand natural language and constantly learn from consumer behavior.

It would be impossible to hire, or even find, enough workers to manually wrangle the data and manually create an individual experience for each customer. Even if it were possible, it’s hardly a path to profitability for any organization.

Retailers and others doing business on the web certainly recognize the potential, according to the eMarketer report. In that Sitecore survey of those who implement CMS for third-parties, 66 percent said that a key advantage of content management systems was “getting a more personalized experience for their customers.”

Given the potential, retailers are not standing pat. A number told the Boston Retail Partners that within the next three years they would be beefing up their ability to personalize based on things such as previous purchases and browsing history.

The vision is coming into focus. Now it’s time to put the pieces in place.

Photo of mug by Ged Carroll published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.