Essentials for Your Digital Strategy: Smart Personalization | Perficient Digital

Essentials for Your Digital Strategy: Smart Personalization

Delivering seamless, consistent, and engaging experiences starts with a customer-centered digital strategy. This ongoing series explores the characteristics that make up a great digital strategy and how to deliver powerful brand moments that solidify customer loyalty and drive differentiation for your organization.

Personalization is a fundamental piece of any digital strategy. Customers expect it, the data is there, and the technology is within reach. Smart personalization is when brands use all the data they have about a customer to provide better, more relevant experiences. The best strategies include knowing how – and when – to apply what you know about customers.

How your brand chooses to personalize depends on your goals and what your customers are willing to accept. You also need to focus on personalizing in the right way. Meaning, you need to prioritize the information that will bring the most value.

Brian Flanagan, Director of Digital Strategy at Perficient Digital, is our resident expert on personalization and instrumental for client engagements around this topic. We recently spoke with him to understand the importance of smart personalization for transforming your digital experience.

How do we define smart personalization?

Brian Flanagan: One of the biggest trends advancing personalization is artificial intelligence (AI). Personalization is shifting from rules-based to using automated personalization engines to craft a tailored experience. We’re going to see another evolution with the addition of cognitive intelligence.

Cognitive intelligence [adds another layer] that tries to understand customers’ intent when they’re researching or asking a question. Cognitive solutions consider an individual’s preferences and serve up information that’s relevant. It’s a subtle difference between a platform that analyzes data and one that’s truly a cognitive solution. It cannot be considered “cognitive” unless it understands intent.

Perficient Digital’s Personalization Spectrum

Our Personalization Spectrum illustrates different personalization types, ranging from simple to complex, and spanning a range of delivery methods – rules-based, automated, and cognitive.

Contextual personalization considers specific environmental factors and circumstances for individual users. Personalization that’s persona-based aligns an individual’s needs with those of a predefined target persona. Next on the spectrum is behavioral personalization, which considers an individual’s previous interactions to provide an evolving experience that spans multiple interactions. Finally, journey-based personalization looks at the customer journey to determine where a particular customer fits within that journey.

The more you understand intent behind customers’ behaviors or actions, the more you can personalize that experience.

Why is smart personalization an important element for a digital strategy?

BF: Customers expect consistency across every interaction with your brand. Smart personalization is essential to maintaining your customer relationships.

A Forrester report on personalization states, “Customers are willing to share personal information with firms in exchange for more valuable experiences.”

This continues to be true, and I believe one of our guides on personalization includes this concept of, “Know me. Show me you know me. Show me the value.” Customers expect your brand to take the information you know about them and use it in a way to make their lives easier.

How does smart personalization add value?

BF: Personalization becomes part of everything you design, whether you’re presenting a feature, a set of results, or content. When designing the experience, view it through your customers’ perspective so you can confirm the information will be relevant.

Think about what will make their experience more delightful or easier. What you deliver could be as simple as a recommendation, streamlining a process, or providing shortcuts to make the experience easier.

Netflix is a great example. We’re all familiar that the service uses algorithms to recommend similar content based on movies or shows you’ve watched. You may not realize it, but Netflix’s personalization takes it a step further by presenting different thumbnail images of a specific scene from an episode or movie. The image displayed is based on your preferences for certain types of movies or shows.

Take a look at the example of images presented to users for Good Will Hunting. The first row caters to a user who enjoys romantic movies while the second row targets someone who watches comedies.

Source: Netflix

Not surprisingly, Amazon is another example of a brand that’s succeeding with smart personalization. The company uses customer data, including purchase history, to personalize offers and optimize transactions. In this case, Amazon uses journey-based personalization to provide alternate purchase options. Based on the customer’s purchase history, Amazon knows the customer is likely to have products that are eligible. With this information, the system provides a personalized offer that reduces the cost of the product by pairing it with a trade-in transaction.

Amazon’s personalized purchase options with trade-in offer

How does a CMO prioritize insights from data to provide customers with a valuable experience?

BF: Start by understanding your customers, their needs, and what’s most valuable to them. Gaining insights through analytics can reveal successes and failures with a digital experience. However, you should also find opportunities to add value.

Qualitative data provides additional clarity to understand the root cause of an issue and discovering opportunities. To gain that insight, you must talk to customers so you can understand their needs or expectations.

For example, consider the outcomes of usability testing for a web experience. Data will help identify where customers encountered an issue with a registration form. What the data doesn’t provide is context around the issue. What were users thinking in that moment? Was it something about the experience, the language, or the design/display of a button? Talk to those specific users, and have them articulate their challenges. Then, you have an understanding that may spark ideas on improving the experience.

Which tools does a CMO need to implement smart personalization?

BF: From the technology perspective, many organizations struggle with establishing the 360-degree view of the customer. Your data may be stored in a customer relationship management (CRM), or perhaps it’s stored in an analytics platform. Sometimes the data could be stored in both.

When customer data is stored in multiple places, syncing those platforms has always been a challenge. And without good customer data, you can’t personalize the experience.

Additionally, organizational alignment matters to gain [internal] support for integrating your systems. Some of our enterprise clients have numerous systems that don’t necessarily talk to each other. When we come on board to help, we discover obstacles to overcome across different lines of business and realize [what we’re up against] to integrate those platforms.

To achieve that single view of the customer and connect these “silos,” it helps to have executive-level buy in. From an operational standpoint, you have to consider how different business units are connected to achieve this 360-degree view of the customer. Some organizations have marketing separated from digital, public relations, and customer support teams. When these groups don’t communicate with one another, it results in a poor experience.

Which clients have we worked with that are delivering smart, personalized experiences?

BF: A large not-for-profit healthcare consortium is one of our best examples of success with personalization. The client is transforming its members’ experience and achieving its personalization goals by using several solutions in the Adobe Marketing Cloud.

The platform helps the organization connect [member data] through an Adobe ID. This unique ID makes it possible for our client to easily follow its members across the different experiences and sync up data to specific individuals.

From a strategy perspective, personalization is baked into its content strategy, and it’s embedded in processes. When building a new feature [for the website/mobile app], personalization is a requirement that the development team has to consider in its design.

Leading organizations dedicated to discovering their customers’ unmet needs don’t just ask for loyalty on the basis of personalization. They earn and provide reasons to trust. (IBM)

What’s the best advice you could give a CMO?

BF: Customers don’t want to feel like they’re just data. When brands overanalyze customers, they feel as if they’re just a number, placed in a category based on profile attributes.

Customers want brands to target them as individuals rather than personas. With advances in personalization, [it’s important] to empower your customers with choice within the experience. They want some control over how their experience is personalized and the type of content presented to them.

Sixty-one percent of U.S. online adults are unlikely to return to a website that doesn’t provide a satisfactory customer experience. (Forrester)

What else do we need to know about smart personalization?

BF: Cognitive solutions can include sentiment, and understand it based on words that customers use to search or ask questions. These solutions can identify customers’ moods, which you can capture and classify that level of data.

Another thing is the importance of understanding personality. Adobe previously shared this example at one its conferences. You have two customers. Both are musicians, over the age of 60, and both live in Los Angeles. Considering the data, the profiles look the same, so why wouldn’t you target your messages and marketing similarly?

The missing element was the personality for each user. The customer profiles revealed were Donny Osmond and Ozzy Osbourne. On paper, they looked the same. In reality, we know these people are vastly different.

You have to get down to the level of personal attributes to specifically target customers in a smart way.

Will personalization be easier because of AI and cognitive solutions?

BF: In some respects, it will save time. One of the ways personalization will help is in content creation. There are a lot of AI engines developing content based on your behavior, spending, and a variety of other factors. These solutions pull all this information together and develop content relevant to you.

AI is rapidly becoming the go-to tool to help marketers connect content with data and analytics, everywhere from lead scoring and retargeting to personalization and segmentation. (Adobe)

For example, Under Armour will send information that says, “You’re on pace to meet your goal this week. Here are some other things you could be doing.” The brand is creating content that’s tailored and relevant to customers’ fitness goals.

Yahoo! Sports, with its fantasy teams, is another great example. It works with a company called Automated Insights that provides the AI content for fantasy football. League members receive game recaps for all of their imaginary games. The content is pieced together based on the data of which teams are leading, which are coming back, and the best performing players.

Having AI engines behind this will create a content explosion. It will be more efficient to develop your content, but then you’re going to have so much it created by machines, the next challenge will be how to actually reach your audience.

If there was one key takeaway for a CMO around smart personalization, what would it be and why?

BF: It’s a widely known problem, “What do you do with all the data you collect?” You have to process it and make sense of it. That requires tools to glean insights from analytics. As platforms evolve, they will increasingly take advantage of artificial intelligence. Adobe’s Sensei and Salesforce’s Einstein both provide AI-driven insights that reduce the time it takes to evaluate analytics and find patterns that may be buried in mounds of data.

Gathering the data isn’t enough. If you don’t know how to interpret your data, then it’s not going to help you deliver relevant, personalized experiences for your customers.


Creating a stand-out digital customer experience that attracts, engages, and retains customers is a tall order. Perhaps you’ve already done some of the foundational work, and you need help with the next step.

When working with clients, we make sure smart personalization is part of your digital strategy. Through design-thinking methodology, defining customer journeys, and preparing road maps on which you can execute, you will have what it takes to deliver a CX that surprises and delights your customers.

Ready to get started with your digital strategy? Dive in for more resources.

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