This article examines some of the common challenges when embarking on an online personalisation project.

Personalisation is exciting because the data shows it is effective at raising conversions and engagement. There is also something still shiny and new about it.

The possibilities are almost endless for big organisations with a wealth of data. It is broadly welcomed enthusiastically but can often blow out in terms of cost, timelines and scope. This article looks at why that is and how the pitfalls can be avoided.

Like most digital enterprises a personalisation project is born full of promise. Imagine the scenario: the agency partner or internal champion presents a deck exposing just how silly it is to broadcast the same message to all customers.

They are individuals with different needs and diverse preferences. How can it be sensible that we talk to them all in the same way? It can’t be. Nonsense. Old-fashioned broadcast mentality. Personalisation is the future. Chest puffed out, the agency partner or champion walks out with a mandate for change.

However, persuading stakeholders of the power of personalisation was the easy part. Making it happen is where the hard work starts.

Make it a multidisciplinary project

Personalisation projects need interdisciplinary cooperation because a successful project will have to integrate across workflows and systems traditionally not owned by one department. 

For example: 

  • Systems and outputs owned by different stakeholders need to be joined up or integrated – for instance, live data from the CRM or analytics insights powering automated content updates. 
  • The project requires ownership and resource to run – but who and what? Many platforms try making it look easy to manage but it still takes time, and support from a development team is often needed.
  • Different stakeholders will have different agendas and they all need to be managed and resolved.

A successful personalisation project requires a high level of cooperation between departments and multidisciplinary communication. They might all be on the same page but they don’t speak the same language.

Whichever way your company is structured, this kind of project needs many different teams to follow the same script and work together: digital, data, tech, CRM, marketing and content.

These specialists have particular needs that are often not understood outside of the specialism. The vision is easy to paint but the implications for the developers, the content producers or the data analysts may initially seem daunting.

If all the teams can speak the same language then it is more likely that scope compromises can be reached through discussion. Without that communication, the project is likely to hit a brick wall.

Guard against scope sprawl

One-on-one personalisation is very possible and might present the best option for optimal targeting but there are potentially so many data and touchpoints that the scope of personalisation projects can quickly become unmanageable.

For example, six personas in six different scenarios based upon three data variables could equate to over 100 digital executions and analysis – a challenge for any creative team. An alternative might be using segmentation rather than true personalisation so you can keep things simpler.  

Whichever approach you choose, it is also important to focus on the key stages of the customer journey where there are activities that have a clear business benefit (and therefore justify the content and data costs).

Be hyper-organised with your content

We have already seen digital asset management systems assist with publishing across multiple platforms. With personalisation can come a proliferation of images, CTA buttons, headlines, body copy and more. There are more variables that have to be accessible to the personalisation engine. This requires a planned approach to content generation and management.

Content planning and production has to be executed in a very structured way so that it satisfactorily fulfils the personalisation. Versions of assets need to be saved and stored according to conventions that the personalisation engine can tap into.

The UX that informs the design and development of digital assets needs to set out precisely what personalisation will occur based on which triggers. Define the areas of the site that will need to house personalisable content and the rules around what is served when.

By making the requirements explicit upfront development time will be saved further down the line. The content needs to be crafted with the persona and the personalisation scenario front of mind. Think about how the personalised content is going to effectively persuade or communicate with the targeted persona.

Top tips

  1. Communicate your plans by mapping the customer journeys. This helps all the teams get on the same page. 
  2. Support your project with customer insight from qualitative research. Easy-to-understand nuggets such as verbatim quotes can really help bring your idea to life. This also helps with stakeholder management.
  3. Have an iterative and lean mind-set. Start with low-hanging fruit or the most obvious hypothesis. Test and learn.
  4. Focus on executions that have a clear business goal and benefit to the user. 
David Griffith-Jones

Published 17 August, 2015 by David Griffith-Jones

David Jones is Digital Strategist at Cedar DCX and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

2 more posts from this author

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Comments (2)


Tony Edey, . at RCL Cruises Ltd

Yup, agreed with everything you said.

Personalisation is a tricky beast indeed. Great in theory (the right message to the right person at the right time, content is king), quite hard in practice to deliver. Even basic personalisation can often require a major site code update both front and back end, access to the correct CRM data, enough free resource to build and run and the ongoing appetite to do so etc. Then there's implied or explicit personalisation, AB testing it, and of course proving that it worked and was worth the cost and effort of setting up and remains worth keeping. Analytics and KPIs have to be at the heart of the plan.

In my experience of attempts at personalisation 'scope sprawl' is the real enemy. There's so much you can do to a site in so many ways you can easily disappear down the rabbit hole never to emerge. I've learnt to start simple and small, working to a longer term vision as so often the results of personalisation prove inconclusive, and at worst have both positive and negative effects spread across the different segments you target.

There is a phrase my father taught me - "measure twice, cut once", and it so applies here. Basically take a long time thinking the whole thing through, then deliver the right thing first time rather than having to go back and trying to rework it later, or realising you never actually had a long term goal to aim for so the efforts are directionless and ill thought out.

But the rewards are great if you get it right. Personalisation - everyone wants it (or thinks they do), few can really deliver as it can takes a significant amount of long term effort and coordination of different disciplines.

almost 3 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Any time you you design up front, before you know what works, you're doing it wrong.

There are lots of "quick wins" in personalization, by collecting behavioural data and using it to drive e.g. product recommendations and triggered messages. None of them require even touching your CRM system.

Once you've spend a couple of months rolling out these money-makers, building up experience and accumulating a few $million in extra sales, then you can think about your massive personalization project - if it still seems worthwhile.

almost 3 years ago

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