With personalized marketing, marketers can deliver unique experiences for visitors that weren't previously possible. Customers who were once blasted with generic, static messaging can now be on the receiving end of specific content, tailored to their individual preferences. For brands, this can result in higher engagement and greater loyalty among customers.

But as it stands, few marketers have actually succeeded in achieving true one-to-one web personalization. The concept sounds ideal for most organizations, but very few of them are able to execute on this concept. What prevents organizations from achieving advanced personalization? There are three pitfalls that are commonly identified:

1. Web Personalization Using Inaccurate Data

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It's deflating for users when they receive an email that starts with "Hi <ERROR_NAME>." These mistakes, albeit unintentional, reflect poorly on companies and result in a damaged relationship between brands and prospects. Or worse, it can turn away prospective buyers entirely.

Studies show that web personalization with wrong data results in negative effects. When people run into personalization problems, 68% of people automatically delete emails they receive subsequently, while 54% unsubscribe from all emails. Forty-five percent will categorize your emails as junk, while 10% will rule out ever visiting your website again.

If your company is just starting out with web personalization, especially at scale, you should use only trusted data sources to populate text. It's worth it to go to great lengths to ensure that your database is free of incorrect or incomplete values. If you can't make these assurances, avoid using the database entirely. Shift your focus to using other, more reliable data points. After all, a bad personalized experience is worse than no personalized experience.

2. Premature Personalization

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You've probably experienced something like this before: you buy a gift for your friend off a random site and suddenly every banner ad, Facebook ad and personalized email is trying to sell you Battlestar Galactica t-shirts. This is not only mildly offensive (you saw the pilot but weren't impressed), but more importantly, ineffective at getting you to purchase.

The same principle applies across all web personalization. Personalized content based on small amounts of data can be less effective than no personalization at all. Understanding a visitor's preferences, interests and intent is very difficult to do based on a few data points. To avoid running into premature personalization problems, test your personalized content against a control group. If your personalized content doesn't improve your conversion rates, try refining your rules-based targeting to include a more targeted segment.

Another solution is to provide non-personalized content alongside personalized content. Remember that it's not a zero-sum game; if your personalized content doesn't land then you increase your likelihood of a conversion when you offer non-personalized content as well.

3. Premature Familiarity

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In 2012, Target realized they could determine when customers were pregnant based on their buying behavior. In some cases, Target knew when a person was pregnant before even close family members. They used this insight to deliver targeted ads to pregnant women with promotions on vitamins, diapers and other prenatal products. One customer famously discovered this tactic and was not impressed, leading to an article in the New York Times and a discussion about marketing ethics.

What many people don't know about this case study, though, is that the pregnancy and new mom program continued after the controversy. Their response was not to stop their personalization program entirely, but to learn how to be creative in their web personalization efforts. For instance, they began placing coupons for diapers next to coupons for lawnmowers, so that the consumers would not suspect they were being targeted. Using this technique, they were able to achieve the same results without proverbially setting off any alarms.

So, a word of caution is to exercise restraint when doing web content personalization. Marketers should still provide value to consumers through personalization, but they should be cognizant of what makes consumers uncomfortable. They need to consider how intrusive campaigns and advertising might appear to a customer, even if intentions are sincere. Pushing the familiarity button too soon could spawn mistrust of the brand.

The Flip Side of the Coin

We address these mistakes simply as a way of saying that not all personalization is good. Of course, if you're doing web personalization the right way, none of these pitfalls will matter. The main principle is to make sure that the customer perspective is driving any wide-scale personalization. If you take the time to understand your customer and use personalization to provide them with real value, they will reward you with higher engagement and greater loyalty.

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