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I work with companies to better understand the people that visit their websites and find ways to improve their experience. These are some of the things i've learned along the way...

  • Scott Olivares

How to Personalize Your Website

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

Netflix gets me. They know I like Marvel shows, appreciate a witty comedy, and am a sucker for the occasional gangster thriller.

They also know that I live with people who have different preferences and certain restrictions – my wife doesn’t like gangster movies and my 6-year old son can’t watch anything that isn’t rated G or PG. When I go to their profiles I see very different suggestions.

This is digital personalization at its best, and few, if any, other companies do it better than Netflix.

And you know what? I don’t find it creepy.

The reason it’s not creepy is because it’s tactfully executed, and it hits the mark. When we’re served the right content in the right context, everyone loves personalization.

We love it because it gives us something we’re looking for without forcing us to search for it. Sometimes it even anticipates what we desire at the perfect time, or before we think of it on our own. Who doesn’t appreciate being considered so much that we are offered exactly what we want without even asking for it?

In this post I’m going to share with you the SharpTheory approach to personalization in great detail. Reading this will provide you with a framework to understand how digital personalization works. While I can’t promise to give you Netflix-like skills, I can promise to show you how to get started, and that I have included several templates to help you along.

By the way, that’s a real screenshot of my Netflix account and if you haven’t seen Jessica Jones yet, I highly recommend it.

OVERVIEW: The SharpTheory Digital Personalization Process

Personalization seems daunting at first, but when you break it down into individual phases, it becomes something you can conquer.

The sections of this post will breakdown the digital personalization process using the following six stages with a summary after:

  1. Identify locations to personalize

  2. Define audience segments

  3. Create targeted content

  4. Create and publish segments

  5. Configure targeting campaign

  6. Learn and calibrate

PHASE 1: Identify locations to personalize

This may seem obvious, but as a reminder, you need to start by clearly defining the locations where you plan to personalize content. This will provide the context needed to create the right content, and help you estimate how much will be needed.

Two suggestions when identifying locations to personalize:

Be selective

For most websites, it doesn’t make sense to personalize everything. Therefore, you should figure out where personalizing the audience’s experience will deliver the most value to your business.

Here’s SharpTheory’s prioritization for personalization locations:

  • High traffic pages – Pages with a lot of visitors.

  • High impact pages – Pages where key decisions are made that affect your business. (i.e. getting to the right product category, learning about the product you care about, deciding to add something to your cart, etc.)

  • Areas of high visibility – Page sections that visitors see quickly; think above-the-fold.

  • Landing pages – Pages that are the destination for expensive advertising campaigns that can be a critical ROI lever.

Map it out

Once you’ve figured out your locations, start a personalization map to record the various locations that are being personalized. I like to keep it simple and use Google Sheets because it’s easy to create matrixed tables and to share with others/my team. I’ve created a sample version below using Party City’s website as inspiration (note that this is not actual data and is for example only).

I suggest creating a tab for every page you intend to personalize. On each tab, create a list of page sections that you intend to personalize. Make sure you create a line item for each specific piece of content that will be required. For example, just saying “Hero Area” isn’t enough detail to help you because there are hero banners, hero headlines, hero sub-headlines, hero CTA texts, hero CTA destination links, etc.

For illustrative purposes, I’ve created a fictional example of a location map using Party City’s website that I will build on for the remainder of this post.

For now, we can fill in the information for the general audience since that’s probably already decided.

PHASE 2. Define audience segments

Next, we need to decide for whom you would like to create a personalized experience. The objective in this phase is to identify people in your digital audience with similar attributes that can be grouped together to create distinct segments.

Focus on the audience you have

Our process involves taking an analytical approach and creating segments based on the audience you have.

You can certainly make assumptions about attributes that should make up your segments. In fact, it’s perfectly okay to start with what you think are your ideal customers. However, you need to immediately cross-reference those assumptions against the people on the channels that you intend to optimize to make sure they exist.

Sometimes, companies create audience segments, or personas, based on their ideal customers and then move on to create content for them without validating that their actual audience matches these personas. This is a common misstep that creates a lot of throw-away work. To read more about this, check out our Personalization Pitfalls eBook.

Some good places to confirm this is visitor data are in analytics tools like Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics and even your own proprietary visitor data that can reported on various BI tools.

Once in these tools, do the following:

  • Create segments based on your assumptions

  • Apply those segments to the pages/locations you want to personalize

  • Evaluate whether there are enough people in that segment to make your efforts worthwhile

Back to your personalization map

Once you have confirmed that all the segments you have defined are well-represented among your visitors, then you can feel comfortable moving forward with them.

Update your personalization map by filling in the audience segment place holders with all of your defined segments. Now you have a matrixed placeholder for content!

PHASE 3: Create targeted content

Now that you’ve defined your audience segments, you’re ready for the creative, fun part! It’s time to start creating the content and experience for each segment.

I believe the best optimization comes from major or meaningful changes, thus, I recommend creating highly differentiated content for each unique audience segment.

Being too coy in this phase risks your campaign not making any difference.

Map it out

As you start finalizing targeted content, make sure that you enter it into the Personalization Map. By Phase 3 you should have all the information needed to completely fill it out.

PHASE 4: Create and publish segments

Phase 4 doesn’t need to wait for Phase 3 to be completed. You can start this as soon as you have defined your audience segments and while you create targeted content.

Enter the Data Management Platform (DMP)

A data management platform (DMP) integrated with your data sources and personalization platform delivering your targeted content is the most efficient tool/means to create and publish your audience segments.

I've worked with companies that use Adobe Audience Manager (AAM); however, there are many other good options to choose from out there, including: Tealium AudienceStream, Oracle BlueKai, and Lotame to name a few. For a bigger list check out this G2Crowd page. Consider integration with your current marketing technology stack and capabilities that empower your business objectives when making a decision

Build your segments

Inside of your DMP, you will build your audiences segments based on the criteria that you defined in Phase 2. These segments will be created by combining the various key attributes/traits.

Publish your segments

Once you have created your desired segments, then you’ll need to publish them to the platforms that will deliver your targeted content (i.e. ad servers, optimization platforms, video delivery, search platforms).

In our example we will assume that you are personalizing your website using Adobe’s Marketing Cloud. Given this, you would publish segments from Adobe Audience Manager to Adobe Target.

PHASE 5: Configure targeting campaign

You’re almost done with all the ground work and it’s time to configure the campaign in your targeting platform. Depending on which platform you use, the steps may slightly vary, but the general process should go something like:

  1. Create a new targeting campaign.

  2. Select the locations for your campaign.

  3. Add your audience segments.

  4. Add or build the content/experience that each audience segment will see.

  5. Select or build your success KPIs.

  6. QA your targeting.

  7. Launch your campaign!

Phase 6: Learn and calibrate

I firmly believe that personalization is far more powerful and ALWAYS more effective than generic content. That being said, it needs to align with context to hit the mark and succeed. That’s not always guaranteed.

For example, let’s say I run personalization campaigns for Partycity.com, and I know that last month you bought some clown shoes on my website (right before Halloween). Because of this, I know that you map to an attribute called clown-shoe-buyer, and I put you in an audience segment called Clowns.

Through our expensive and extensive research, we know that Clowns tend to buy other clown-things. Therefore, I put you in a personalization campaign where you start to see promotions for balloon animals, squirting flowers and tricycles on the homepage.

This would be a big mistake, right? The logic is sound, for the most part, but I missed the mark because my assumptions were incorrect. I assumed that you are a clown and that you will want to buy more clowns things. However, you were just buying a Halloween costume and would never be interested in a squirting flower (or would you?). This is a silly example, but things like this happen all the time.

You must test your assumptions by always running an A/B test against your personalization rules. In fact, given all the work that is required, you better be testing against whatever was there before in order to determine if all your hard work is worth it. Otherwise why do it at all?

The first time you test

The very first time you test against your personalization assumptions, all you need to do is serve a small portion of each audience segment non-targeted content. Basically, this small portion of every audience segment will see the exact same content. This will allow you to measure the difference in your KPIs for targeted vs. non-targeted audience segments.

You may learn that your personalized content experience has no impact. If this is the case, then one or more of your assumptions are wrong.

Maybe buying clown shoes isn’t a good indicator that you’re a clown. Maybe clowns don’t really like balloon animals, squirting flowers and tricycles and this assumption is generated by false representation of clowns in shows and movies.

Maybe you shouldn’t have a Clown segment.

Whatever it is, go back and calibrate. Then test again. The more you test and calibrate the easier it gets and the smarter/wiser you’ll become about the whole process. You’ll hit the mark eventually!

Every test thereafter

Once you find a winning personalized digital experience, you can continue to calibrate your assumptions and content by testing against the previous assumptions or content.

In this scenario there is no generic content. You are testing one set of personalization assumptions against a different set of personalization assumptions.

Map it out

You can keep track of the effectiveness of your personalization efforts a number of ways. A popular way to understand the high-level impact is to create an analytics dashboard that breaks down performance by audience segment.

One major drawback of analytics dashboards is that they sometimes don’t provide the granularity needed to analyze deeply. When you are looking for high value insights you need to be able to analyze results on a granular level.

A way to measure the impact of your personalization is to create a copy of your completed Personalization Map and change it a bit include KPIs for each audience segment by the content they saw.

Here’s what it looks like for our fictional Partycity.com example:


Personalization can seem challenging, but when you set up a process and tackle each phase individually, it’s really not that complex. The key is having the discipline to create that process, stick to it, and have clear documents and deliverables at each phase.

Here’s a quick review of a Digital Personalization Process:

Document everything in Google Sheets doc called a Personalization Map

We measure and report the impact on key KPIs to understand the value of personalization

Also, I promised I’d help you get started. So here is a link to my Personalization Map template. And here is a link to our Personalization Results Template.

Good luck!

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