Planning for Real-Time Personalization: How to Get Started


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The definition of personalization has changed. Ten years ago, marketers on the “cutting edge” of personalization were those who succeeded in referencing a customer’s first name in the HTML of an email message. Today, personalization means so much more: it’s the ability to customize content on a 1:1 basis based on demographic information, preferences and behavior — even behavior that takes place in real time on a company’s website. Web personalization is just one example of how marketers have gone far beyond just being on a “first-name basis” with customers.

If you are like most digital marketers, you have big plans this year for personalization. How do we know? In a survey recently conducted by Evergage, 75 percent of marketers said they are already using some form of personalization. Furthermore, 90 percent of marketers said personalization is important to their long-term goals. And then there are the results.

For example, one way brands are using real-time Web personalization is to combat the issue of shrinking “time on site” by visitors. According to Chartbeat, the average brand website has less than 15 seconds to capture a visitor’s attention before he or she leaves. That’s not a lot of time. But popular brands such as Publishers Clearing House and online fashion retailer Rue La La are using Web personalization to provide customers with individualized content and recommendations based on real-time behavior. As a result, the products and information shown can be more relevant to individual visitors from the moment they arrive on the website. These companies and more are showing how Web personalization is helping customers stay on websites longer and engage with more content, while also helping convert more visitors faster and more frequently.

So if you didn’t have big plans for real-time personalization before reading this, now you know you should. The good news is that an effective personalization strategy doesn’t have to be complex or expensive.

Start by knowing your audience

An effective personalization strategy begins like any other marketing strategy or program: by knowing your audience. Examine your historical sales data and compare it against explicit visitor and consumer data. These data points should include demographic information, as well as purchase and browsing behavior, and more implicit data such as referring sources, products browsed or added to cart, page views and active viewing time.

Ultimately, you should have a clear picture of your customer personas, as well as a definition of their journeys to becoming customers. Carefully map out the steps a visitor takes from discovering your website to completing an action. This journey map will reveal the key messages and targeted content that are most likely to move visitors from one step to the next and, ultimately, to becoming customers. This is your blueprint for personalization.

Understand your audience segments

If real-time personalization is about delivering highly relevant, in-the-moment experiences, why is understanding your broader audience segments important? With a better understanding of audience segments, you can more accurately identify the most influential calls-to-action in your personalization strategy. In fact, what you learn through online behavior will also be an immense help in optimizing and refining your audience segmentation strategy.

Essentially, your job is to reach the right audiences at the right time in their buying journeys. While you learn about every customer based on their behavior, you start to uncover important trends and patterns that enable you to organize them into key segments. These segments will help you deliver more customized, personalized and targeted marketing messages along the way.

Make conversion your top marketing goal

Ask any online marketer, and they’ll tell you their top three goals generally include:

1. Acquiring new visitors through SEO, content marketing, ads and email

2. Engaging visitors and converting them to leads and customers

3. Re-engaging customers to keep them coming back and becoming loyal customers

While all of these goals are important, conversion is the key and requires focused attention if an online strategy is to be successful. The results of getting more conversions speak for themselves: improved engagement, increased email signups, increased order values and higher revenues. But how do you achieve these results?

Construct your personalization plan

When visitors arrive on a website, you want it be a great experience for everyone, even before you begin personalizing the site. Web design, A/B testing and continuous usability improvement are important techniques for this. But when you are conversion-focused, your personalization strategy becomes paramount. As such, it’s important to identify and prioritize the audience segments or individuals to target with personalized experiences on the site. Map out your customer journeys for the different types of visitors you have and where personalization can help. Set your engagement and conversion objectives. Further, in addition to setting your objectives, understand how you will measure progress. For example, do you have a formula for scoring customer engagement on your website? How do you measure lift? Is revenue tracking tied to the success of your website? Map out the analytics that are essential to supporting your personalization initiatives.

Deploy effective personalized experiences

Now that you’ve defined your customer journeys and gained a better understanding of your audience segments, it is time to think about your personalized experiences. What types of information or messages do you want to deliver? And how do you want your visitors to experience them?

It is critical that each visitor receive personalized content and messages that are cohesive and timely — meaning the content makes sense based on the session they are engaged in, their intent and the actions they are likely considering. Educate and guide visitors throughout the buying process to help drive conversions. Also, be conservative. Let your targeted offers be aggressive, but don’t populate your website or mobile app with so many that they’re overwhelming. And finally, use your company’s style guidelines; make sure your Web experience supports your visual brand and voice.

Let’s look at a few of the most effective but also easiest-to-implement real-time personalized experiences as examples of where to begin:

    Click image to view full size.
    Click image to view full size.
  • Pop-ups and info bars : These are effective ways to ensure relevant, real-time content is in front of your visitors. While pop-ups “interrupt” the user experience to drive a critical action or incentive, info bars tend to be less intrusive and persistent. Both can be very effective. For example, this info bar on Publishers Clearing House’s website generated a 36 percent lift in engagement, encouraging visitors to play more games on the site based on the types of games they preferred. And Brainshark, a leading sales enablement solution provider, has increased registrations by 15 percent by promoting relevant content and events to targeted audiences on their website.
  • Inline messages and in-page edits: These types of messages are subtle and deliver personalized blocks of dynamic content based on a visitor’s behaviors or actions. With in-page edits, you can create personalized experiences on parts of a webpage including text and images to present relevant content without “flicker.”
  • Forms and surveys : It’s not easy to get meaningful data from your customers, but real-time forms and surveys — targeted at individuals based on their behavioral history — can improve data collection and provide valuable insights. Make sure the timing is right — for instance, a brief survey following a purchase is more effective than an email sign-up form moments after someone arrives at your site. By way of example, Endurance International Group uses progressive profiling surveys to gather feedback and account information from users. The surveys are smart and ask relevant questions based on answers to earlier questions.

If you haven’t yet implemented personalization strategies such as these, you can no longer afford to wait. A one-size-fits-all approach to customer engagement will soon become obsolete. While the notion of catering to individual prospects or customers may seem like a daunting task, providing personalized experiences doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

Andy Zimmerman
Andy Zimmerman is chief marketing officer for Evergage, which delivers real-time personalization to more than 500 million Web visitors. He has more than 20 years of experience leading marketing, sales, business development and alliances at leading software companies and is a frequent speaker at industry events.


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