Last month my colleague Zack Wenthe and I spoke at Sitecore’s annual customer and partner conference, Sitecore Symposium 2017, in Las Vegas. We chose to present on the topic of personalization because we knew through numerous engagements with our clients and discussions with other organizations that personalized customer experiences are as popular as bacon right now (hint: that’s VERY popular), though few marketers really understand how digital personalization works and how to approach it correctly by leveraging the marketing technology at their fingertips.

During our presentation, we shared a simple construct to approach personalization for your website and digital properties within the Sitecore Experience Platform. Just like the process of creating an appetizing bacon dish, approaching personalization of digital content can be organized into 4 basic steps: Prep, Cook, Serve, and Clean Up.

Prep: You want to prepare for personalization by constructing a strategy which includes being clear and focused on why you are personalizing, who you are personalizing for, and how you will execute personalization on your website and/or other digital channels. This in turn will lead you logically to what you should personalize. This is very important because so many companies do this backwards by jumping directly to what experience or content could be personalized rather than employing a thoughtful strategy that takes you to what should be personalized.

With respect to why you should personalize, look through both an internal and external lens and identify the end result you are trying to achieve. From an internal perspective what business opportunity are you trying to optimize or what theory are you trying to prove? Are you more interested in acquisition or retention? Or maybe nurture versus immediate conversion? From an external perspective what is the customer(s) journey with your brand and how can you shepherd them to their desired result faster or with higher satisfaction?

Because you shouldn’t necessarily personalize for everyone, you’ll also want to isolate who you want to personalize to. Ask yourself which digital segments or personas are appropriate for personalization based on the end result you are seeking and identify their motivations and attributes that will dictate their behaviors on your website.

Next, how you will personalize should be based on data and triggers which inform your starting point. Data could be captured and accessed in the Experience Database in Sitecore or be collected from other enterprise systems like CRM and so it might be in the form of inbound sources, cookied visitor information, purchase history, etc. Live visitor data usually comes in 2 types: explicit information is found in a digital signature or provided directly by the visitor via form completion whereas implicit information can be indirectly implied from visitor behavior.

Triggers are the mechanics of personalization and dictate the timing of its execution based on recognition of visitor data or interactions on your website. Triggers can be conditional which means they are configured to execute on an if/then basis, for example if this happens then present that personalized content. Triggers can also be adaptive and apply personalization based on dynamic visitor behavior in real time.

Cook: Now it’s time to get serious about what to personalize but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. Start simple by employing conditional personalization from explicit information through Sitecore’s rule set editor and target content on your website that is the logical end point of your strategy. Or even simpler, you could also use content that is receiving the majority of traffic across your site.

No need to personalize whole pages either; start with a single component on a page and personalize the imagery, headline, copy, or call to action. Or get creative within reason and use a small combination of page layouts and media assets to create a few different experiences.  And remember, just because you can personalize something, doesn’t mean you necessarily should personalize it. Less is more when you are first experimenting with personalization.

You’ll also want to think about the visitor journey and take one step backwards and personalize at the immediate step before the conversion point so that you can measure the effectiveness of the personalization in your early experiments. If you start personalizing too early in the journey, you won’t know if your personalization had an impact since there will be so many other potential contributing factors between the personalization point and the end conversion. By working backwards, you can personalize and improve each step in the journey until you reach the beginning.

Serve: It can be argued that serving your personalization is the most important step because this is where your efforts are judged by your visitors. Your visitors expect personalized and relevant experiences and this is the goal of context marketing which is comprised of delivering the right message to the right audience in the right channel at the right time.

When thinking about serving with context, I like to start with the second ingredient in this recipe. The right audience for personalization is who you are trying to influence and move toward a conversion on your website through being more relevant to their needs. Knowing your audience and what’s important to them is the key to any good marketing communication and online personalization is no different.

Presentation of the right message matters as well. The act of personalizing alone isn’t enough, you must have engaging content that converts and influences end results. Make sure your content versions have been created and approved and reside in Sitecore ready to be used, and make sure A/B testing is set up for your personalization. Also, be mindful of your baseline when testing is involved. Before even thinking about testing personalization, test your default content to ensure that it’s effective and will act as a solid baseline to judge your personalized content against.

Lastly, contextualize your personalized website content based on the marketing channel and timing of the visitor’s experience. Your goal here is to complete the experience that has been started by the inbound channel and the campaign messaging that your visitor was exposed to in that channel. You must also understand the timing of recent interactions that the visitor has had with your brand both offline and online in order to serve them the appropriate content that makes chronological sense and satisfies their immediate need.

Clean Up: After you’ve cooked your personalized content and served it to your visitors, cleaning up is necessary so that you are prepared for subsequent personalization activities. To properly clean up, you’ll want to get analytical feedback and adjust your future personalization recipes accordingly.

Feedback can be as easy as reviewing analytics and reporting through the Optimization tab in the Experience Editor and opening the Personalization window to reveal reach and trailing value per visit for all of the personalization scenarios on that page. In this report you can see how your personalized content is performing against other versions of personalization that you are running and also against your default content.

Other data that supports personalization can be found by reviewing internal search keywords in Experience Analytics and pattern matches to content profiles in Experience Profile. This data gives you valuable intelligence on interests and the type of content that is popular with your visitors which you can in turn use for identifying new personalization opportunities.

Based on this feedback in Sitecore, you can adjust your personalization rules immediately or continually test and iterate to learn more and optimize your approach. Alternatively, don’t be afraid to throw away a personalization scenario if it’s not working. Personalization should be treated as a continuous process to refine the digital experience for your visitors and differentiate that experience from your competitors.

A Recipe for Personalization
As we concluded our presentation at Sitecore Symposium, we shared a recipe card with the audience to help them put their digital personalization into action.  Over the next several weeks we will be following up this introduction to personalization with a series of smaller posts that will explore each of these ingredients in more detail.  We hope that with this information you’ll be able to create personalized experiences that are as popular as bacon.