Personalization Is Just Like Dating

Sean  Brown

January 22, 2015

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The other day I was in a new business pitch, and part of the strategy we were recommending included personalization.

“You know, when users are exposed to personalized experiences, we often see triple digit gains in key KPIs. Not just sometimes, but often.”

That’s a quote from Mark Ryan, Extractable’s co-founder and Chief Analytics Officer.

As I was driving home from the pitch, I thought about what Mark said, and my reaction was, “Well … yeah. Of course.” Although my position is a technical one in our agency (and has been at every stop along my career), you’ll constantly find me trying to simplify concepts, and I most often do that by using everyday experiences as a metaphor.

So it is here I proclaim, “Personalization is just like dating.” Fine, it’s a simile not a metaphor, but hang with me.


Try this dating strategy sometime: walk up to the door to meet your new date for the first time, and the moment he/she opens the door, immediately propose marriage. Ask for long-term commitment right out of the gate. Seem a little abrupt? OK, now raise your hand if your website is routinely doing the equivalent. “Ah, I see you’ve found our website, how about filling out this form with 25 fields so we can tell you what we want you to know about our product.” Like a marriage proposal on a first date, not the best start to a relationship.

What if, instead, you decided to focus on your users’ needs and wants first? If you actually did a little bit of listening and paying attention?

Real-world example:

You: “I noticed you wear a GPS watch. Do you run or bike?”
Your date: “I do! I run, but I have to admit, I just got started. I don’t know what I’m doing, really.”
You: “One of my coworkers just did a beginners’ program called Couch to 5K, and she said it helped a ton. I’ll see if she’ll send me a URL.”

Translated into personalization-speak:

You (in your personalization tool): “Customers coming to our site who spend time looking at models FR10 and FR15 are either novice athletes or are just getting started. We should highlight our ‘Ten Tips For Beginning Runners’ on their next visit.”

You get the point. When you can meet your customers’ needs at the right place, at the right time, and at the appropriate level of your relationship (in their buying journey), you’ll find more success and have a better shot at a positive, long-term relationship. Entering a site and immediately asking for the sale or an onerous amount of personal information is the equivalent of proposing marriage on your fist date.

Personalization can go a very long way to help you build trust and interest, which leads to better conversion. I realize that I used a very simple example, and that your customers’ journeys can be far more complex, but that shouldn’t stop you from implementing basic personalization quickly. At the very least, you’ll get better information and decide whether or not to act upon it at some point in the future. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started, and they fall into what we’d call anonymous personalization. You can do these without ever asking your users to log in or provide any information. You’re going to want to see how these tests turn out, so make sure you have some good website analytics hooked up first. Then, make some best guesses at customer categories and use those to group your visitors. Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect at first.

  • Model customer behavior. Use visits to certain sections of your site as a hint to what type of customer is browsing. I used an example of this technique above when I mentioned a certain GPS watch model.
  • Use geography and time-of-year. A February visitor from Southern California may not need to see your frozen pipe solution, but a visitor from Minneapolis may be quite interested.
  • First-time visitor vs returning visitor. In essence, a second date. Your customer has shown a bit more interest, so make sure to keep providing value.

Again, think of these as “get-to-know-you” endeavors. The dating equivalent of “Where did you grow up?” or “What do you do for a living?” kind of conversations. You may find that you have something in common. “You went to Northwestern, too? When were you there? I graduated in 2005!” It’s a basis for better understanding and trust going forward.

The grand majority of our clients use content management systems (CMS) to run their web presence, and even the most basic have some ability to do personalization. At the Enterprise end of the spectrum, Sitecore, Adobe, and SDL all have incredibly robust offerings that can allow you to integrate sales and customer service data (for instance, in Salesforce), behavioral data, lifetime value, and social cues (to name a few) to create very nuanced personalization experiences. In fact, these tools allow you to move into the realm of marketing automation. The system itself begins to adapt and display appropriate content at the appropriate time. While the simple examples above can probably be managed by hand, once you start down the road of complex segmentations, matrixed customer decision makers, and intricate customer journeys, you’re going to need the help the automation can provide. Think of it as the “we’ve decided to move in together” phase. It’s a serious step that needs to be thought about carefully.

I’m not trying to tell you that getting great ROI from personalization is easy, but I am saying that you shouldn’t wait until you have every bit of data to get started. It’s a process, not a project. If you only agreed to go out on a date with someone you knew in advance was a perfect match for you, you’d have plenty of Friday nights to catch up on Downton Abbey watching. Alone.

So get out there and get started. And when you do get to the point where you need help taking your strategy to the next level, contact us, we’d love to help. Our services include Digital Strategy, Content Strategy, User Experience, Creative, Analytics and Technology.