How to Begin Personalizing Web Experiences

Jul 28 -

Behind every organization’s website is a marketer that struggles every day with content chaos. Much of the chaos is rooted in the idea that you have to deliver a smorgasbord of fresh and relevant information that satisfies the needs of all site visitors—whether prospects, customers, partners, employees, etc.  It’s a huge amount of work that places a burden on the marketers tasked with creating the content, and the site visitors who must sift through it all to find exactly what they’re looking for.

To step off of the never-ending content treadmill, marketers need to determine what motivates site visitors, and then take them on a planned content journey using personalization to target content to their specific needs and wants. This means delivering relevant content to the right audience at exactly the right moment creating unparalleled web experiences that site visitors will love. It also means taking a more strategic approach to content creation, which is what we marketers prefer to do anyway. But the effort is worth it as personalizing the web experience will have a dramatic impact on your conversion rates. Everybody wins.

Here are a several statistics to consider.

  1. 94% of marketers and 90% of agencies agree that personalization of the web experience is critical to current and future success.
  2. 91% of marketers currently use or intend to use personalization within the next year.
  3. Marketers see an average 20% uplift in sales when able to deliver personalized web experiences.
  4. 74% of site visitors get frustrated when website content appears that has nothing to do with their interests.
  5. 61% of site visitors feel better about an organization that delivers custom content, and are more likely to buy what you’re selling.
  6. 78% of site visitors believe organizations providing custom content are interested in building good relationships.
  7. 90% of site visitors find custom content useful.

Common Obstacles

Given these numbers, personalization arguably should be at the top of every marketer’s website strategy. And yet it isn’t.

So why not? Because knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it are two very different things. There are a number of obstacles that can stop marketers at the starting gate, including:

  1. Old technology—either the CMS used does not support personalization, or the website is homegrown and personalization is seen as too labor and time intensive for in-house web developers to undertake.
  2. Too complex—personalized content strategies just sound complex, don’t they? For many, this perceived complexity is overwhelming and intimidating making it a non-starter.
  3. Scope—the organization has many personas and many products making the project hurdles appear insurmountable.
  4. Process management—when website personalization requires processes that span multiple departments, organization-wide coordination can be difficult to manage.
  5. Lack of knowledge—marketers understand the importance of personalization, but lack the know-how to do it. They don’t know how or where to start.
  6. Resources/budget—the demands on development and marketing resources are too great and would deter from other strategic projects.
  7. Sustainability—concerns with how to manage personalization over time.

Whatever the reason, it is simply no longer good enough. Marketers can’t afford to ignore the opportunity that is staring them in the face—e.g., that average 20% uplift in sales mentioned earlier. If the tactics that worked for you last year are no longer producing the same results, the time to incorporate personalization into your marketing strategy is now.

Know Your Site Visitors

To drive meaningful interactions, you need to take into account information that you know about the people visiting your website. Are they prospects or customers? Partners or employees? Start by creating personas—or profiles—for each of the various site visitors you have. The more specific you are the better.

Once you have begun the persona creating process, you need to get into your site visitor's heads a bit to further flush them out. What are their demographics? What are the buying stages for each persona (awareness, consideration, application, etc)? What information are they looking for at each stage of the buying cycle? What are their motivations? Below is a sample persona:

This is an example of a personalization persona.

Next, you’ll need to determine what information they are looking for at each stage and what motivates them. Technology will help you reach a better understanding of what content matters most to each of your personas. Using analytics, marketers can gain deep insights and uncover trends that will help you create and deliver content more strategically. If you have a web content management system—and most organizations today do—you should already have the analytics capabilities necessary to determine which paths and content types have the highest impact for each persona. With that data in hand, it’s simple to map out and organize the content journeys you want each persona to take at each stage in the buying process, and create a targeted content plan that will keep them engaged.

Start Small

The biggest obstacle to successfully delivering personalized web content is really your own ambition. Marketers that see the value of personalization often feel they need to launch it site-wide with a big bang approach. Don’t fall into this trap. Start small. Start by delivering specific content to a specific persona at a specific touch point.

Analyze and Optimize As You Go

Decide the metrics you will use to measure how well your personalized content resonates before you launch it on your site—percentage of time that it’s clicked on, for example. Metrics will help you better align your content with what your site visitor is looking for.

Once you’ve measured performance, optimize where necessary to deliver better experiences and better results. You may need to A/B test several pieces of content or content types on a given page. Only once you have optimized should you expand your content pathway for that persona by adding an additional piece of content. Once you’ve created and fully optimized an entire content journey for a specific persona, then you can move on to the next persona.

Types of Personalization

Personalization Types

When considering what personalized experience you want to deliver to various personas, it’s important to understand that there are two types of personalization. Implicit personalization allows you to deliver personalized content targeted to anonymous website visitors whose browsing behavior matches criteria you define. While explicit personalization allows you to target content to registered website visitors who have expressed what interests them during the registration process.  Following are a few personalization scenarios to consider:

Head icon The Anonymous Visitor

Using a college example, we’ll look at how the use of implicit personalization can improve the anonymous visitor’s experience.  Imagine a high school student receives a direct mail piece from you encouraging them to check out your college. Using the URL provided, they navigate to your promotional landing page. They then proceed to navigate to the College of Arts & Sciences home page and check out the various programs offered. From these actions—visiting promotional landing page and pages visited—you now know something about your anonymous visitor’s interests, so behind the scenes the CMS automatically adds this visitor to the ‘awareness stage’ and ‘school of arts and sciences’ persona groups. You already have valuable information about them even though they haven’t self-identified, and can begin personalizing their web experience immediately.

During the awareness stage, your site visitor is making that important first impression. As the visitor continues to navigate to specific pages on the site, you may want to entice them visually with a photo gallery of students creating artwork because they are a member of the ‘school of arts and sciences’ persona, and a call to action for more information because they are a member of the ‘awareness stage’ persona. Pretty simple, right?

On the next visit to your homepage, they are presumably gathering information so the CMS automatically updates their persona moving them from the ‘awareness’ stage to the ‘gathering information’ stage.  You don’t want to present them with the same content they saw last time, so based on the groups they are now associated with, you dynamically present them with a new news story of a graduate from the College of Arts & Sciences whose artwork is garnering national attention. Based on their IP address, you know they are not local to the area, so the CMS also dynamically displays a call to action to schedule a campus tour, since they are likely not familiar with the campus.

Each touch point with personalized content is designed to enrich the website experience by delivering relevant content that anticipates needs, engages, and builds credibility and trust. And so it goes, continuously personalizing and evolving their journey as they progress through the various buying stages. The more details you learn about your anonymous site visitor, the more relevant their web experience becomes increasing the likelihood of converting that site visitor and making them your next student.

When determining which content to present on your site visitor’s journey, think about targeted pages where personalized content will add value. The goal is not to throw any or all relevant content to them at once. Rather you should strategically add value where it makes sense to further the visitor down the funnel.

Head icon Registered Website Visitors

The second college example we’ll look at is how explicit personalization can improve the registered site visitor’s experience. These are known visitors that have given you their personal information—name, email, interests, etc.—so you can keep them informed on expressed topics of interest.

In this case, your visitor “Martin Fox”—parent of a prospective student—filled out a form on your website registering for information on several topics.  Based on his expressed interests and information gleaned from his behavior, the CMS automatically creates a profile for Martin and tags it with the groups ‘admissions’, ‘financial aid’, ‘scholarships’, ‘parents’, and ‘gathering information’. The content you show Martin should reflect his current buying stage and persona. Your goal now is to get Martin to clearly see the value your school brings to the table, and book a campus tour with his son or daughter.  

When Martin next visits your homepage, he will see some of the same general content from his last visit, plus content targeted specifically to parents. The home page carousel now dynamically displays a few personalized articles, targeted to parents, such as “How to find College Grants”, and another that highlights recent scholarships awarded to current students.

And finally, because the goal is now to get Martin to book a campus tour, he will be presented with a call to action to do so not only on the home page, but other high traffic pages as well. Martin’s web experience has been completely personalized from the moment he hit the website. You’ve made it easy for him to find content, including content he may not know even exists. It’s relevant. It’s credible. And it increases the chances of making his child your next student.  



When comparing the website experiences of two organizations—one with personalization and one without—the experiences will be markedly different. The website without personalization will serve the same content every time, regardless of visitor behaviors, preferences, demographics, devices used, or geographic location. Site visitors will have to work to find the information that is specifically relevant to their interests which can be time consuming given the volume of content found on many websites. Their experiences will be solely determined by how good they are at finding the right content. In other words, their experience is completely out of your control.

On the other hand, the website that personalizes web content to site visitors will anticipate their needs, and deliver exceptionally relevant content. That relevancy creates web experiences that they will love, and that they will reward you for with brand loyalty and better outcomes. Which organization do you think site visitors are going to engage with when ready? 

Website personalization is meant to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. It is a major differentiator in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace. A well executed personalization strategy can be extremely effective, and it’s not rocket science. The keys to success are good content, good data, a good CMS, and a good strategy. And remember—start small, and optimize. 



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