7 Simple ways to implement personalization (and why you should consider it)

Mark  Ryan

November 25, 2015

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Sites that utilize dynamic personalization typically engage visitors more than sites without personalization, have higher levels of visitor satisfaction, and convert visitors at higher rates.  But implementing personalization on a website can get quite complex, requiring a team of people from engineering, UX, design, and content.  When organizations think about the leaders in personalization (i.e. Amazon, Netflix, Pandora) they think of highly complex systems integrating data from web analytics, CRM, marketing automation, and ecommerce.  In this post, we’re going to look at 7 ways to implement personalization that don’t require a complex implementation or dedicated maintenance engineers. 

Keeping it Simple – Focusing on one delivery mechanism

When we start personalization initiatives, we always identify the main areas on a site that can be dynamically personalized including photography, graphics, banners, promotional boxes, content headers and articles, navigation, onsite search results, and triggered emails.  Similar to most types of web initiatives, increasing the complexity of a personalization project decreases the likelihood of doing it really well.   If you are looking to simplify the implementation of a personalization project, we highly recommend focusing on one specific area (i.e. content) and not personalizing other areas (i.e. photography).  This focus will reduce the costs of the project, improve the likelihood of getting it right, and be a good method of dipping your feet in the personalization pool before diving in.   

Data Sources

As we choose a delivery mechanism for the site personalization we will also need to plan the data sources and the personalization algorithms that we will use.  While most sites known for great personalization utilize multiple algorithms based on different user attributes, for the sake of simplicity we recommend choosing one of the following. 

  1. Visit Count:   Is this visitor a first time visitor to your site?  A repeat visitor?  Have they been to the site 10 times or more?  Tracking the number of visits a user has made is fairly straight forward and most web analytics platforms are already doing a good job of this.  Utilizing this small piece of information we can start to customize messaging and/or imagery on areas such as marquee banners and promo boxes.  Knowing the number of visits helps us to try personalization tactics such as showing the visitors products they have not seen before or showing different messaging for the same product each time.  A good content strategy could be to improve product messaging with each visit.  For visiting prospects that view the same product over multiple visits, we can offer these qualified visitors a chat session and thus improve our lead generation.
  2. Geography:  IP addresses and mobile browsers provide a large amount of information directly and indirectly.  Website owners can quickly and easily get information on the geographic location of the visitor (i.e. country, state, city, and sometimes the street name). For organizations that serve specific geographic footprints (i.e. banks and credit unions) or organizations looking to grow sales in regions where they have no footprint it is highly advantageous to communicate proximity or local knowledge on a website.  This can be done with localized photography (i.e. city scapes, local landmarks) or localized vernacular (i.e. quid, buck, banker, lift, barbie, football, teller). 
  3. Referrer: For visitors that navigate to your site from a link on an external website, you can often ascertain their intent by the type of site that they navigated from.  For example, if the visitor came to your site from a partner site (i.e. distributor, indirect lender, or ecosystem partner) you might be able to tell what kind of products they are interested in.  Visitors coming to your site from a press release, social link (i.e. LinkedIn Groups), or media article might be interested in newer products and organizational content.  Visitors to your site from a job site (i.e. Dice.com) will clearly appreciate personalized content around job postings. 
  4. Onsite Search Phrases:  Visitors are directly exposing their intent when using the onsite search engine.  While the first priority should be to help them quickly find what they are looking for, the second priority should be to interpret that search phrase to help personalize their experience.  Visitors performing searches are often looking for categories of information such as support (i.e. ‘forgotten password’), product explanations and hubs (i.e. ‘accounting software‘), and product attributes (ie. ‘mortgage interest rates’).  These categories will allow you to personalize your content to cater to their interests.
  5. Content (Products) Viewed:  For most products (i.e. computer memory, retirement plans, sweaters, ERP software) visitors will need to view multiple pages on your site and likely visit the site multiple times before making an initial buying decision (unless you’re selling something simple like Number 2 Pencils).  This deliberate research behavior gives site owners a great opportunity to drive personalization immediately upon realizing a user may have viewed content on a specific product.  Site owners can dynamically suggest complimentary content on the specific product that is known to convert well and has not been previously viewed by the user on current or previous visits. 
  6. Prospects, Leads, and Customers:  Within the web analytics we can tell if the visitor has previously filled out a contact form (a lead), if the visitor comes to the site frequently (a customer), or if they are new to the site (a prospect).  As the site recognizes which stage of the sales cycle the visitor is in, it can better serve up marketing messaging and sales messaging accordingly. 
  7. Hunters vs Gathers:   A good portion of your site visitors are performing one of two distinct behaviors.  Hunters are viewing content for one product (or one product family) and viewing a good portion of the content about that specific product.  Hunters have a specific task in mind and their click-path often reveals the type of task.  Gathers often view multiple products but only take a shallow look at the product content.  If you can identify the type of behavior the visitor exhibits you can offer personalized content recommendations to either learn as much about one product as possible or explore multiple products. 

These 7 types of personalization can all be implemented without the integration of back-end applications such as Salesforce or Marketo.  If you have a modern enterprise CMS such as Sitecore, Adobe EM, or Tridion you can probably implement some of these personalization items without writing any custom code.  By focusing on just one type of delivery for the personalization (i.e. content OR photography OR design OR whatever) you can eliminate the complexity of having to manage personalized deliverables from multiple disciplines.  

Reporting and Return On Investment

As with all investments into your website, personalization efforts should be tracked against site goals to determine if there is a positive return on the investment.  We typically see that sites running smart personalization efforts have higher levels of engagement, higher ratios of repeat visitors, better visitor satisfaction scores, and much better conversion rates towards site goals.  As personalization is implemented, site owners must track and report on the following segments:

  • Exposure: This is the total group of users that were on the site(s) and triggered one or more of the personalization scenarios.
  • Interaction:  This group of users is a sub-group of the Exposure group.  These users were not only triggered by one of the personalization scenarios but also interacted with it (i.e. click-through). 
  • Non-Exposure: As a baseline, site owners will also need to track users that did not trigger personalization and were not exposed to any personalized content, graphics, photography, etc. 
  • Personalization Types:  When the site is employing multiple personalization algorithms (such as the 7 mentioned above), site owners will need to track which personalization scenarios are performing better than others.   It’s common that some highly focused types of personalization may only be viewed by 1%-5% of the total audience but convert at very high levels while other types of personalization are triggered by the majority of users but only convert at moderate levels. 

Advanced personalization features have the promise of a great user experience that provides superior results.  But the complexities involved in personalization can either deter site owners from starting personalization initiatives or derail personalization efforts in progress.  By keeping initial personalization efforts simple, site owners reduce the costs of personalization while seeing positive improvement in site performance.  The methods mentioned in this article can be implemented with relatively low levels of engineering efforts and can yield significant returns.