4 Strategic Initiatives to Help You Prepare for the Future of Personalization

There’s nothing that earns my loyalty like a curated experience. When a brand can make it easier for me to purchase, check on an order or troubleshoot an issue, I am truly delighted. But when a brand goes out of their way to provide great experiences when I’m not expecting them, you’ll hook me for life. I had one of these great experiences recently with Amazon. I know, I know, people have a LOT of strong feelings about Amazon. From their impact on the environment to warehouse issues, I get Amazon’s brand is more than this experience, but let’s put all of that aside for now and look at how they’re weaving personalization through every touch point and, in doing so, how they’re shifting your customers’ expectations. 

To set the scene, in April, Avengers Endgame was released. And unlike most of the world’s populationI’d seen precisely zero of the Avengers movies (like, not a single Marvel superhero movie for me in the last 10 years). To rectify this horrifying situation, my husband suggested (insisted) that we watch all 22 Avengers films. And thus, we embarked on a summers journey to consume more than 50 hours of actionpacked superhero movies.  

All was going well until we got to Thor: The Dark WorldWe took to Amazon Prime Video, like we had for the 7 previous films, but when we hit play the video was oddly distorted on our screen.  We spent a few minutes troubleshooting, power cycling, tweaking the screen ratio, but nothing fixed itLucky for us, we simply walked upstairs, turned on the bedroom TV, and voila – problem solved. It was a small inconvenience but for a $3.99 purchase, it wasn’t going to shake my faith in Amazon (plus, now I got to drink wine in bed).  

Ok, ok so I’ve said absolutely nothing about personalization or positive customer experience to this point. But fast forward to the next morning. I check my email and found an unexpected message from Amazon. The note apologized for the rendering issues we’d experienced, credited our account back for the $3.99and offered us a free rental; we could enjoy a free Marvel movie on them. SAY WHAT?! One, yay for free things. But two, my IT mind went crazy! The level of integration and data they needed to pull this off made my brain explode… and it was all proactive. I hadn’t reported an issue. I hadn’t contested the purchase (hell, we’d gone on to watch the movie). But through tracking my purchasing history, their product performance and connecting it all to customer support and marketing automation, they’d provided me with a truly personalized experience – one I didn’t even know was possible. This went beyond delight; I was truly wowed. 

CX is at the center of my work world. I work for a company that helps other businesses provide better experiences, and my role focuses on providing those same great experiences for our potential and current customers. To put it lightly, I’m a bit of a CX/IT/Martech nerd. And in the weeks that followed that Amazon message, I couldn’t quite get it out of my head. Amazon was already DOING what many other companies are calling the future of personalization. Yes, if any company were to have the resources and infrastructure needed to pull off this level of personalization, it would be Amazon.  But, what happens when everyday customers encounter delightful surprises like this? That’s right, they’ll come to expect them from other brands too. Without Amazon’s cutting-edge tech and mass of resources, how can brands compete? 

I took a step back, did some Googling, and started digging into how brands could set themselves up to offer this level of support. First off, I found that I wasn’t alone in thinking this level of personalization needs to come fast. In fact, HFS Research conducted a 2018 study of 590 enterprise leaders that found that 56% of enterprises expect the adoption of Automation, AI and Analytics to be scaled up and industrialized in the next two years. 

Two years might seem fast. And it is. Many companies are, in fact, simply launching POCs rather than company-wide AI overhauls. But these companies aren’t just launching initial AI and personalization prototypes. In the background, they’re reassessing infrastructure, data connectivity, and team structure. This is how they’re getting ahead.  

So how do you stay ahead, too, and turn your personalization vision into reality? Hint: it goes beyond technology. 

 

1. Invest in your customer data platform

Customer data platforms (CDP), much like CRM, provide a centralized database for customer data. Different than a CRM, they’re much more focused on data breadth and intelligence. Often viewed as marketing tools, CDPs help aggregate, clean and analyze data to fuel better automation. CDPs enable cross-functional teams to see the full view of customers, and with machine learning, CDPs accelerate insights, new capabilities and personalization.  

The emergence of CDPs shows the need to go beyond system-to-system integration. It’s not enough to get “the right data” into the right system. To scale innovation and prepare for evolving personalized and smart interactions, businesses need an intelligent customer database. 

The best part of a CDP? It’s UI and system agnostic. You can leverage CDP data and intelligence across any interface, NO-UI interactions and outbound and inbound marketing touch points 

Ultimately, choosing to invest in CDP is an infrastructure decision. True CDP software platforms are emerging, and with the scalability of APIs and application networks, many businesses are building their own data platforms. Whichever options is right for your business, now is the time to evaluate your infrastructure and data strategy.  

 

2. Emphasize capabilities and microservices

If you’ve been on CIO.com, IT World or any major IT publication in the past few years, you might be starting to get annoyed with the incessant use of “capabilities.” While IT thought leadership might be getting a bit buzzword-y, these writers have a point, and it’s not just about giving your business new capabilities. It’s about shifting how you deliver. If you have any hope of scaling to keep up with technology evolution, you must stop delivering projects and start building scalable products. 

Business stakeholders, like marketers, need the ability to configure, assess data and adjust without waiting on IT, especially when it comes to personalization. And they can’t do this if IT is still building always-custom, limited functionality. Marketing needs to be enabled with capabilities and data, and to do this, IT needs to scale through microservices architecture and a product delivery mindset.  

So that’s all well and good, but if you’re a marketing leader reading this, you might be a little lost. That’s pretty much my point. While personalization often gets labeled a “marketing” responsibility, you can’t do this on your own. It’s not enough to provide business requirements, and SaaS is too siloed to truly meet your personalization needs. To set yourself up for personalization success, Marketing and IT can’t just collaborate, they need to converge. Which that takes me to point #3…. 

 

3. Assess your team’s skills and elevate cross-functional expertise 

I have (many times) been in situations where I didn’t truly understand the technical ramifications of what I was requesting. And thus, IT has built a solution that was over-architected, buggy and not reusable.  

To be clear, I’m not pointing fingers here. This is not an IT issue. This is lack-of-common-understanding issue. Not lack-of-common language issue. Often, business people lack the deep technical expertise to go beyond conceptual understanding of code, APIs, PaaS and so forth. And on the flip side, engineering lacks the business knowledge and experience to know where marketing/biz requests are coming from, thus collaboration isn’t always effective. Simply, you don’t know what you don’t know.  

But we’ve all known the unicorns who can do both and do them well. In product delivery, these individuals often emerge in product management and product leadership roles. But what about in IT and business systems? Do we truly have this cross-functional role? I’m going to argue, mostly no. Solution Architects come closebut these wonderful cross-functional minds are often found in pre-sales or pre-project roles. How can this role manifest itself in IT? Enter: Analytics Translators. 

Coining this role, McKinsey and Harvard Business Review experts say, 

“Translators play a critical role in bridging the technical expertise of data engineers and data scientists with the operational expertise of marketing, supply chain, manufacturing, risk, and other frontline managers. In their role, translators help ensure that the deep insights generated through sophisticated analytics translate into impact at scale in an organization. 

So where do we find these translators? I don’t think simply ramping up recruiting efforts is going to be the answer. Business translation is an emerging field. Only 10% of STEM grads currently go into translation roles. Translation is a field that needs to be nurtured. Training and educational programs are largely segregated into business functions and engineering functions. Look for this to change in the next few years. And don’t be afraid to elevate these skill sets as you recognize them internally. With evolving and emerging technologies, roles and responsibilities will need to evolve and emerge as well.  

4. Don’t wait to perfect the above 3 to start your personalization journey

While data, infrastructure and talent are essential to the future of personalization, don’t forget that personalization does exist now. From CMS to CRM, companies like Sitecore and Salesforce are continually improving personalization features. So start now. Iterate, test and continue to build personalization capabilities.  

No one’s getting it 100% correct right now. Not even Amazon. But the best brands are acting like the future is now.