Navigating the Personalization Gap: A 2017 Field Guide
Success in a personalization initiative requires understanding the solutions landscape—and the true place of your needs within it. Here’s how to configure yours.
It’s mid-2017 and in our daily digital lives, the promised land of personalized user experience is increasingly upon us: its benefits tangible, the tools plentiful, and the forms it takes—from feeds to recommenders, and from bots to voice—ever more diverse.
Upon closer inspection, personalization is a demanding, complex, costly and high-visibility investment, best not embarked upon with mixed, unclear or unrealistic objectives.
The yawning have-and-have-not gap between the poster children of personalized experience—certain social, ecommerce and entertainment giants lionized in the brain of your boss, say—and the constraints of your roadmap is not just daunting: chances are, it’s a busted compass pointing you the wrong way.
Toss that compass, but by all means proceed forward.
Personalization is an ambition, not a destination
I wrote this guide to help arm and inform product managers and digital decisionmakers, from brands to startups to agencies and beyond, in charting the most successful course of action in forming or evolving their personalization program and practice.
Personalization is fast becoming a (maybe the) hallmark of contemporary digital user experience and product differentiation. There’s an emerging recognition, alongside the mainstreaming of personalization tools and techniques, that personalization is not a destination—and certainly not the culmination of a few roadmap sprints—but an ambition without one set endpoint.
But don’t let the outsize footprint of a Facebook, Amazon, Google or Netflix fool you into thinking that the personalization playbook has been codified. There are huge capital investments and giant stakes at play, and every reason for the digital giants to toe a bullish line about their prowess. Meanwhile, Spotify’s push into personalized UX have become a signature brand achievement, and StitchFix is pushing into even more ambitious territory: each day, we’re seeing new pages of best and emerging practices being written.
Impressive. Daunting. But don’t buy the hype.
No matter where you sit, there’s worthy work to be done, moving the craft of personalization forward to keep pace with related technologies. What’s needed is a map of the contemporary territory in 2017, a way to navigate the worthy pursuit of personalization, while steering clear of the rocks.
I’ve spent more than a year studying how folks in the trenches are faring with personalization. It’s given me some sense of where the big gaps lie, whether you are clocking time at Facebook, or a small-town florist.
The knocks on personalization
Behind the allure of personalization, product managers and subject matter experts know the truth:
- it’s a heavy lift to get going and to operate,
- expectations are high if not inflated (thanks, Netflix),
- the tools are often disparate pieces of an unrealized whole, and
- because the tech and practice is nascent, pitfalls beckon at every step.
Amid a sea of solutions and possible paths forward, cracking the code on personalization is becoming more difficult than ever.
(In future I’ll have much more to say about the “bull” case for personalization, and why I’m so energized about where it’s taking us.)
The personalization gap
There are two personalization gaps, then.
- There is the have and have-less worlds, explained in terms of scale, investment and proprietary technology of the giants just mentioned. Where you sit presently, for better and for worse, shapes your relative perspective and ambitions on personalization.
- There is also a gap in (a) knowledge and (b) capabilities germane to personalization. These are distinct and separable needs, but one tends to feed the other. Without a smart strategy, no amount of capacity building will make you effective with personalization. Likewise, developing a capability will inevitably build acumen.
Chances are, you cannot address the former today. It’s hazardous to ignore the latter.
Maps we can make now—to get further tomorrow
This post looks to address the knowledge gap. Next time we’ll discuss a specific approach to the capability gap.
The sooner we get a map and a territory charted, the better our chances of realizing for our products, our businesses and brands more meaningful wins from personalized technology and experience. In the course of my research, it’s been all too typical to run across teams being their own worst enemy in a game of musical chairs, either undersizing personalization offerings or overfitting the programs — with a little thoughtfulness, we can get past that.
What follows below are some provisional resources with that goal.
- First, working definitions of personalization that accounts for the many different facets of personalized digital experience.
- Second, a list of software vendors actively touting personalization solutions.
- Third, a loose evolutionary framework for thinking about the level of impact (and investment) you may choose to make in a personalization effort. Again, this speaks to where you sit, within the have or have-less camps, but I think this framework accommodates both.
- Fourth, a few companion models from secondary sources, also looking to frame differences in organizational maturity, complexity, or level of effort in personalization.
My hope in sharing this thinking and research is two-fold:
- That folks can self-direct their personalization efforts with greater confidence, having looked at the landscape this way and through the lens of these materials.
- That others in turn will help deepen its value and utility over time by sharing their own contributions. By all means, send me the resources, insights and tools you’ve found valuable.
Ultimately, I’m hoping to see more learnings more widely, candidly and consistently circulated as a result of sharing mine. We’ll get a proper playbook yet.
1. What is personalization?
As a practitioner, you can infer a lot from how people define personalization.
At first blush, there’s a surprising, fairly dispiriting range of answers, which reveals the true breadth and reach of interest in the topic. Where they place the emphasis tends to carry a “tell,” in my experience: do they focus on rote mechanics, on technology, on sales settings, on content? Each of these belies a slight or considerable bias, perhaps a blind spot, and may be a view to the limits of their expertise or areas of focus in personalization work.
Here are a few definitions I do like:
Personalization manages an interactive conversation of optimized content relevant to the customer journey. —Zimm Zimmermann, Merkle
Personalization technology enables the dynamic insertion,
customization or suggestion of content in any format that is relevant to
the individual user, based on the user’s implicit behaviour and
preferences, and explicitly given details. —James Doman
Personalization, in the context of a relevance product, means adding user-specific signals on top of all the other signals to make your product much more relevant. —Nikhil Dandekar, Quora
Personalization is the act of dynamically curating experiences to each individual and context in a seamless manner across channels. —Scott Tieman, Xavier Cimino, Irwin Lim, Jeriad Zoghby, Accenture
I don’t have mine today to offer up in part because I think this range does the job. Sure, I’d prefer something singular and pithy that also gives some explanatory depth on the range of emerging tech and channels that rely on, augment or are augmented by personalization, but maybe you might have an addition to suggest?
4 factors toward a richer definition of personalization
Until we have a definition of personalization that encompasses and fits for
- the distinct, standalone subject matter domain it supports (here I’m thinking of learning, commerce, and varied modes of content consumption—the lattermost inclusive of UX for skimming and diving, leaning in and leaning back);
- context (e.g., location and device usage); and especially
- the number of possible product or user interface endpoints (e.g., inclusive of notifications, bots, recommenders, voice, AR/VR, and AI)
…we will have ultimately underserved and -scoped the full reach and directional impact of personalization. These are some of the key factors to determining what I call (and will elaborate upon another time as) personalized product opportunity.
Sooner than later, we need to get to a holistic higher ground in our understanding of the technology and practice of personalized experience. Anecdotally, this issue presents as the key limiting effect on the way personalization programs are typically executed today—and probably responsible for many program failures.
2. Who is offering personalization products and services today?
(A preliminary list. Contribute to improve.)
This list began as a way for me to orient myself in research on recommenders and then personalized experiences for various clients and it has since grown organically through conversation, work experience and learning.
I welcome suggestions here and will probably consider eligible those organizations and brands doing work in adjacent spaces, like bots and notifications, and make no beef with point solutions versus platform-style ones.
- Dynamic Yield
- Adobe — Target, AEM, etc.
- Rich Relevance
- EpiServer — Peerius
- Lean Plum
- Salesfore — Pardot
- Oracle — Eloqua
- Oracle — Maxymizer
- Bright Idea
- Urban Airship
3. How can I scope and size my personalization program?
There are two answers here. Consider the one I share here the succinct version of a longer and more comprehensive response. It’s a touch generalized, but again, think of it more as a compass (which way should I point myself?) than a map in its present form.
Assess the footprint for your personalization program
First, think of your personalization program as an ambition with clear immediate objectives, and maybe even some downstream ones for the future. Imagine 3 axes for locating the footprint of your program:
- your organizational position (e.g., role) and setting (e.g., business unit)
- your organizational digital maturity
- your present stated focus and objective
The answers to this is a recipe for what form of personalization you should be prioritizing. To push the analogy, below is a cookbook of progressive forms of personalization. Your answers to the above bullets should be a fairly strong indication of what sort of dish you ought to be cooking.
Progressive personalization: A cookbook for your program
- a. FUNCTION (e.g., A/B testing of marketing assets and messaging, or customizable user settings for a site or app)
- b. FEATURE (e.g., a recommender module, an advanced search, or a behaviorally-triggered notification via app, email or SMS)
- c. EXPERIENCE (e.g., minimized friction and heightened KPI performance across key user flows through a personalized UX, such as the browse experience of Netflix)
- d. PRODUCT (e.g., branded, standalone-quality feature set that in itself is either (a) market-defining (b) brand-differentiating and/or (c) directly or indirectly monetized: i.e., Spotify dynamic playlists like Release Radar and Discover Weekly, or the entirety of StitchFix)
It’s imperfect; it’s a start.
To break the metaphor, this is a zoology of personalization that gets at a wide-angle view of how it is deployed and realized through many varied prospective digital (and non-digital) touchpoints. Some, for example, will suggest there’s an omnichannel nirvana at which fully orchestrated customer experience operates seamlessly, linking the CIO and CMO in harmonious progress. Higher rungs on the ladder will doubtless be climbed.
At a minimum, there are different levels of personalization pervasiveness in a given organization and that should be a useful lens for those with a customer-centered vision.
As importantly, we should not presume any certain, A-through-D destination is logical for every personalization program: putting the hype aside, personalization should not be about moonshots or pointlessly chasing the most visible innovators in sectors adjacent or distant from your own.
What’s the utility of this model? Near-future opportunities in AI
What this progression should reveal and measure is a growing level of sophistication, investment and reward.
But the utility of the model is not limited to a mental model that situates a program owner or product manager in a coherent decisionmaking framework, and to locate and size that personalization program.
Progressive personalization is going to be key to getting ready for what AI will be able to deliver in digital experiences, faster than most of us expect it. One of the biggest impediments to launching a personalization effort today is the pre-personalization lift of rich, well-structured, and authoritative data.
This model should be a way to consistently underpin all personalization efforts to remain orchestrated, incorporating a single abstraction layer and a single source of truth about its users. That discipline and focus should allow smart organizations to speed their way to personalized product opportunity faster than their competitors, and deliver experiences that are transformatively better than them, too.
4. What are some other ways of thinking about personalization?
I have collected a wide range of explanatory models for how other parties (software companies, consultancies, technologists, etc.) explain or illustrate the world of personalization: its value, its functional demands, how its algorithms can work, and so forth. I’m not extending any particular endorsement or expressing a vendor preference. Find them scattered throughout this post.
Below, I am sharing a subset of those resources I find distinctive, novel or useful—and that I think are already in the public domain. I’ve attempted to credit authors and source materials for all these secondary assets, but please reach out if I can supplement that information and provide further context or links.
What did I miss? Keep the conversation going.
Thinking holistically about the design of your personalization practice is the key to moving forward with poise. It moves the field forward, too. Personalization should be about business simplification as well as a higher-impact customer journey.
That said, I don’t have a monopoly on answers or opinions and I want yours.
Reach out and help me make this a true guide for those taking their steps forward with personalization.
I hope you find this helpful. Drop a line or leave a comment and let me know.
Appendix: Additional Recommended Reading
What follows is a shaggy and unordered grab bag of opinions, scholarship and other editorial fare about personalization.
I may look to be more purposeful in how I share and organize this in future. Consider this for now just a starting point, and I’ll be dedicating time to transcribing here a lot of the resources I’ve tracked and accumulated over the past year.
This is not a proper bibliography, nor do I stake a particular claim to the relative utility and validity of the opinions expressed: it’s really a mirror of memorable materials I’ve accrued in my research travels.
Over time, as I continue to plug away, it should offer a range of opinions and levels of detail and focus.
- John Berndt, Berndt Group: Personalization Mechanics
- Jake DiMare, The CMS Myth: The Content Personalization Myth
- Colin Eagan, A List Apart: Approaching Content Strategy for Personalized Websites
- John Berndt, Berndt Group: Don’t Drive into the Creepiness Ditch
- Deane Barker, Gadgetopia: Content Personalization: A Reality Check
- Ed Finn, Slate: How Netflix Embodies One of the Most Seductive Myths of the Algorithmic Age
- Shailesh Khadapkar, Merkle: Personalization at Merkle
- Kevin Nichols and Kathy Baughman, Gather Content series on content personalization: 1 / 2 / 3
I’ve made a reasonable attempt to make attribution and credit clear but please contact me with any suggested improvements in that regard.
Likewise, if I’m overlooking any especially striking resources, kindly let me know.