Deciphering Personalization

What it Really Means and How You Should Get Started


‘Personalization’ has been a buzzword and a lightning rod for some time now, which is fair – there have been a lot of changes and advancements to come our way – but I fear that it’s also become a catch-all term, a clean-up term to mean a lot of things that have been swept together under the guise of personalization.  Let’s roll back the curtain a little bit and sort some of these very different ‘pieces’ of personalization out.


From ICF Olson’s point of view, there is Personalization, Targeting, and Dynamic Content.  There is ‘true’ personalization and I’ll get to that in a minute.  Let’s talk about these other two players that often get lumped in with it.



Targeting is really a marketing function.  Targeting gives the audience what the marketer wants to sell.  Do you live in the North?  Let’s show you sweaters.  We have a sale on snow boots, let’s show you those, too.  The company’s marketing team is driving what customers see, not the customer.  Don’t forget that segmentation falls in there, too.  The marketing team is deciding what men, aged 30-45, in urban areas, will see when they come to the website.  That, in our book, while useful and wonderful, does not count as personalization.  Because it’s simply not personal TO YOU.


Dynamic Content

Dynamic Content is similarly not personalization. The ‘dynamic’ part of content is created via content tags in the author’s system.  In AEM, it’s a smart list.  But regardless of the tech behind it, it’s important to acknowledge that the marketer is STILL deciding what the customer should see, based on explicit data.  So, here, the customer still doesn’t have control over what they see.  To ICF Olson, that is not personalization.  It does require a heavier development hand and tagging and organization, so it’s not a breezy decision, but it’s not exactly the end of the road for personalization, either.


The Holy Grail: Personalization

So we’ve talked about what isn’t personalization.  Let’s talk about what is.  First, it’s a larger story than just implementing a few whiz-bang features.  When ICF Olson sits down to talk about personalization with a client, there is strategy and road mapping and a full accounting of company organization, technology, and aptitude.  But most simply, Personalization is about implicit data, like geolocation, search term, time of day, referring URL, etc., and the trade of data for value between the customer and the organization.  When gathering the data a customer willingly shares, personalization strives to give back what that customer wants.  The company’s marketer is perhaps a shadowy facilitator in this equation, the creator of the myriad possibilities that can be presented to a customer, but not deciding what gets picked.  Special offers and loyalty programs are other veins of personalization, catered directly to a customer on a 1-to-1 basis, assessing their needs and what’s relevant to them, at precise moments, based on their individual actions (or lack thereof).


Start Your Quest

If you’re new to personalization, understanding the above is a crucial first step in determining where you’re at and where you’d like to go.  The next step is to be ready to look at your organization and ask, ‘why?’


The ‘why’ is ever so important, and we at ICF Olson refuse to start a personalization endeavor any other way.  In fact, we’ve created a personalization checkpoint to decipher what building blocks you have and what needs to be established to set your foundation.  After why, we then look at tools.  What tools do you have?  What are you currently using?  What’s your efficiency there? What gaps are there in your technology? And on and on.  Our overall goal is to look beyond the technology and also focus on what your team, their skillsets, your content, and your infrastructure looks like.  Simply getting the tools installed is not enough, we strive to make sure you have the right tools working together, fully supported, to take you from intention to measurement, and have a full understanding of the business motivators supporting your answers to the ever-present ‘why?’


Talking about what your ideal, end-state personalization looks like starts after we’ve locked these discoveries.  An ‘ideal state’ can look very different to each company – some might want to push the boundaries of what’s possible across multiple channels, and others might want to focus on A/B testing on a single channel.  It all depends on where you are on the maturity scale and where you need to be compared to your competitors.  Every company does not need to run a 4.40 in personalization.  If you’re jogging faster than your competitor, there’s no reason to run.


I hope I’ve cleared up some definitions about personalization and how to find out what flavor is important to you and your company.  If you take away anything from this, I hope it’s that understanding the ‘why’-driver is the most important step, and that a good partner can help you discover how to leverage it to the utmost benefit.