How brands are finally realising the full potential of personalisation

Lack of contextual understanding for consumers’ behaviour has long held back the effectiveness of personalisation in spite of a wealth of data, but marketers are finally starting to get a grip on it.

PersonalisationMarketers have been debating personalisation in earnest for over a decade, since the time when it meant no more than including someone’s name in an email or on a piece of direct mail. The sophistication of targeting technology has undoubtedly increased since then, yet there remains a sense that the potential of personalised marketing still hasn’t quite been fulfilled.

Sarah Mansfield, Unilever vice-president of global media for Europe and the Americas, neatly explained the trajectory that many companies have been following – and where they would like to end up – during a panel session at October’s Festival of Marketing.

“What we say is it’s a journey from mass reach to mass customisation to mass personalisation. It’s about reaching large audiences but doing it in a really smart way.” To achieve this requires “understanding consumers, their traits and behaviours, to identify actionable targeting segments for which we can develop different messages”.

In summary, true mass personalisation means “right time, right place, right targeting”.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Targeting or mass marketing? The answer is both

Yet even if some companies are now beginning to achieve this, in reality most brands have been stuck for too long at the mass customisation stage; perhaps believing they were delivering personalisation, but in fact failing on at least one of Mansfield’s three requirements. The most common reason is a lack of information about – or even a lack of interest in – context.

When marketers talk about contextual targeting, they are usually referring to the page someone is browsing at a given time – but there are more important contexts for consumer behaviour than this. When people engage with brands, they always do so with a specific intent guided by their individual interests at a point in time, which can’t be gleaned from their demographic profile or even their past behaviour.

Understanding the context of engagement

“If we as a business are going to genuinely understand people’s needs and deliver to those, this is the person we need to understand – a person who’s got interests, who’s got habits, who’s got things that are important to them, but also probably needs some help and support,” said AXA PPP Healthcare’s head of digital and ecommerce, Richard Cooper, also speaking at the Festival of Marketing.

Personalisation has become one of the health insurer’s key objectives as it attempts to be seen not just as the provider of a financial product but as a “health partner” for consumers. This involves being able to give advice based on an individual’s unique circumstances at times when it will be genuinely useful and welcome.

“We’ve been personalising marketing for years. We are good at giving somebody the opportunity to purchase the thing they want at the point when they need it. What I don’t think any company has been good at is giving somebody the health and wellbeing solution or suggestion they need at the point when they need it,” Cooper added.

Without an understanding of a customer’s motivations at the time they receive a communication, the company knows it is at risk of giving the wrong advice, or advice that is missed or ignored.

“There is no point in sending me generic messages that don’t apply to me. There is no point in telling me to go to the gym when I am on a journey to a football match. If you get the timings right and get the understanding of me right, I’m much more likely to engage,” said Cooper.

READ MORE: MoneySuperMarket drives growth by switching focus ‘from revenue to relevance’

Five modes of behaviour

In a completely different sector – consumer media – and with different objectives on customer acquisition, Bauer Media has had the same realisation that context is key. In its case, the context is about the nature and intent of a user’s visit, which cannot be gleaned from data about historic behaviour or a static profile of who they are.

“Our customers expect more from us in terms of intuitive user experience than the old model of personalisation can deliver. It’s not so much about knowing demographic details but understanding and pre-empting what each website visitor expects to see, based on the journey that led them there,” says Bauer Media’s head of acquisition Leah Roberts. 

“We aim to deliver a personalised user experience, the foundation of which is consistency and contextual relevance.” 

READ MORE: The challenge of achieving personalisation at scale

To achieve this it ensures that when a consumer comes to one of its websites via online advertising, the experience and the content they see chimes with the creative in the ad that brought them there. It does so using Ve Global’s advertising-to-onsite tool.

Without the correct context of why a consumer is engaging at a particular time, efforts at personalisation can actually hinder rather than help commercial objectives. Adam Hindhaugh, creative and product director at Ve, points to the example of shoe shopping. If an online retailer knows you are a size 9, it might show you a selection of shoes in stock in that size. However, if you are not shopping for yourself the effect will be counter-productive as the suggestions are irrelevant to the context.

He says: “More and more, we are uncovering that the typical [user journey] is not linear, and behaviours are changing so aggressively over time that to follow the typical funnel from awareness to consideration to purchase…just isn’t enough any more. Behaviours are so sporadic depending on the context and intent of the user.”

Our customers expect more from us in terms of intuitive user experience than the old model of personalisation can deliver.

Leah Roberts, Bauer Media

Home and garden technology brand Gtech undertook a project with Ve based on the insight that there are five key shopping modes, which provide important context for consumers’ visits. Through a survey it found around half of its visitors were in a researching mode, which corresponded with the results of A/B tests of 15 ad variants, where those aimed at people doing product research performed particularly well.

By identifying the on-site behaviours associated with the different shopping modes, Gtech was able to tailor its creative accordingly and increase click-through rates by 300%. As Hindhaugh points out, brands need to change their message according to the relevant shopping mode.

“If they are in researching mode, they are going to look at a number of different websites to see if they can find the best price or the best product. It doesn’t necessarily mean the journey has ended for that brand, but it does change the context in which you need to have a conversation with the user and the way in which you will guide them to purchase.”

Managing data carefully

Of course, there are also quick and data-light ways that brands can approach personalisation of the customer experience, particularly where customer service is concerned. For example, by using messaging and chatbots to automate predictable queries but then handing over to a human operator for more complex questions, brands can manage their resources efficiently while also offering a one-to-one response when it is needed.

READ MORE: Vodafone expands its use of chatbots as it looks to transform the digital experience

As Facebook planning director told the Festival of Marketing: “The top 10 questions [customers have] cover 90% of their queries – there or thereabouts – that’s what bots are brilliant at. The questions you’re getting when making most of the purchase decisions are generally covered by these 10 questions.” But he added: “You need a hand-off, you need a way to take that to a real person when something really weird comes in.”

The personal touch can also be enhanced simply through using the right tone of voice. Edwards pointed to Lego’s gift recommendation chatbot on Messenger, named Ralph, as a good example.

“A lot of chatbots are done in a very transactional way. You want a gift? These are your options. What’s your price point?” he said. “What was lovely about what Lego did was they used Ralph to bring the Lego brand to life as well.”

The approach brands take to personalisation in future will probably need to be much less data-heavy in order to comply with the new requirements of GDPR. Research from Accenture suggests as much as 75% of marketing data has been rendered obsolete by the new regulation, shrinking some databases numbering millions of individuals down to five figures.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean opportunities are closed off. In fact, it may mean marketers can focus less on working out what to do with masses of irrelevant historical data and more on gaining consent to collect that which is contextually important, and designing innovative services around them.

AXA’s Cooper admits to frustrations that GDPR “has probably slowed us down on the journey we were on a little bit”, however he believes “the output is much more usable”. The future, he said, lies in giving the consumer control.

“Health and wellbeing data needs to be managed by need. This will never work if people have random access to your most personal data – your health and wellbeing data. But you need to be able to then share it with health systems, with insurance companies, with medical providers. You need to give them access and then take that access back or reduce that access once you’ve finished that interaction. This doesn’t exist today.”

Not only in health, but in all sectors, such innovations could pave the way to a model of personalisation that’s better at giving customers what they want, in turn creating much more valuable relationships for brands.