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Demystifying Personalization at Scale: CDPs and Other Martech

Authored by Brian Ivanovick

It’s all about getting the right message to the right person at the right time.

If you’ve been a marketer for any length of time, you’re probably sick of hearing this line. I’ve heard it from vendors, analysts, prospects, and talking heads for nearly 20 years. To freshen things up with a different phrase, McKinsey has recently taken to calling this personalization at scale. The reality is, brands are still struggling with how to execute on this idea. It is a deceptively difficult problem to solve.

This post is for marketers who want to understand the state of personalization without having to pour over endless jargon and vendor doublespeak.  Demystifying personalization at scale, if you will. We’ll review where brands are at with respect to (1) right message, (2) right person and (3) right time— what I’m calling the 3 pillars of personalization.

Before we get into a discussion about the state of the three pillars, let’s acknowledge that personalization at scale is fundamentally about changing the way people work. It requires a coordinated effort across channel owners, content creators, and data teams. It is a significant change management effort. I won’t focus on those issues here, but getting the people and organizational design right is more important than the tech stack. I’ll address those issues in a future post.

Right Message

Let’s begin our discussion with the pillar that is the prickliest to manage at scale: right message. Right message is shorthand for “the right content or offer”. This is where I see one of the biggest bottlenecks. Why?  If you’re eventually going to get to 1:1 personalization, then you need a ton of personalized offers. I spoke to a major credit card company who said that they have thousands of active offers, but if you’re a business traveler on a Tuesday night in Amsterdam, they have exactly zero offers to show you.

The reality is that offers are expensive to create, due to creative, design, and approval costs.  You also need to account for the fact that each channel (i.e. email vs. social) needs its own offer format. Generating offers (a.k.a. right message) remains a largely manual process. Most brands will use some workflow tools like a Project Management or Content Marketing Platform, but these applications largely only track and/or store the work. Vendors have yet to deliver anything to help creatives automate repetitive tasks such as approvals or reformatting for channels.

From a technology standpoint, right content remains a huge opportunity for an entrepreneur who can figure out how to produce compelling offers at scale. Measuring content effectiveness is also immature with some vendors offering very suspect “content scores” to fill the void.

Your best bet is to make sure you understand what content you have and to make sure it’s properly catalogued in a DAM or Content Marketing Platform. Ideally, those content repositories are programmatically connected to your channels to reduce the friction of getting these offers in front of your customers. The bottom line: We have a long way to go before we have solved the right message problem.

Right Customer

In general, brands have a wealth of information on their customers to power personalization.  It’s gathered from every channel.  They log what your last call to the call center was about. They track your behavior on their website and mobile apps. They have your historical transaction data. The main issue for brands right now is tying all of that together and then translating it into a coordinated, compelling experience for the customer.

In response to this challenge, a series of technologies with interesting acronyms have popped up, including CDI, DMP and CDP.  The current darling of the bunch is the Customer Data Platform or CDP.   

There are two core issues that brands are trying to solve with investments in CDPs: 1) creating a unified customer profile based on behavior from numerous channels and 2) getting those insights out to the channels (e.g. email, web, paid media) to create a compelling customer experience. This is a critical piece of the puzzle and the central question for brands is, who are they going to entrust with this responsibility?

The natural answer is the marketing clouds. But then you’ve got to deal with the fact that, once they have your data, they’ll have the power to raise prices and that they don’t really like to integrate with products outside of their own. For this reason, many brands are choosing independent CDPs.

Right Time

The final piece of the puzzle is also the most mature: right time. Right time actually refers to the channels that deliver personalized content to customers. This is where the overwhelming majority of investment has been over the past 15 years, with email service providers (e.g. Responsys, ExactTarget), marketing automation (e.g. Pardot, Marketo) and CMS (e.g. Day Software now Adobe Experience Manager) getting gobbled up by the marketing clouds.

Connecting these channels to content and data remains the core personalization challenge. Those responsible for the channel technologies are desperate to get better omnichannel data and content solutions embedded in their offerings. Otherwise, they don’t, they just become “dumb pipes.” And who’s going to renew their high-six or seven-figure email service provider contract, if all those technologies do is send email.

Tying It All Together

So where does this leave us? Personalization remains a huge, messy problem.  The smart brands aren’t waiting around though. They’re adopting a more agile approach to solving the problem.

Instead of putting together a huge initiative where every piece has to fit just right, they’re organizing small teams, prioritizing use cases, and then filling in their tech stack. From there, they’re standing up just two to three use cases, learning and then evolving. They’ve learned the lesson of brands failing with large-scale personalization projects that take years to implement and fail to show ROI. Smart brands won’t make that mistake again.

Wondering how to proceed from here?  Try these tips:

Think agile – Prioritize two to three use cases that you consider foundational to a successful personalization program. Don’t allow your organization to negotiate those into more.  Keep things small and manageable. Iterate and learn.

  • Perform a content audit – Make sure that your organization has catalogued the content you’ve already produced for personalization, and that the content is searchable.  Determine what content is needed to execute on your use cases, and scope the level of effort. This will uncover a lot of learning about where the process is working and where it’s broken.
  • Determine whether a CDP is necessary – Using your use cases as a guide, assess how you would get your customer data in a shape to send it to the channels that matter.
  • Get channel teams involved – Get channel teams involved early and get their buy-in.  If you’re going to run an omnichannel personalization campaign, you’ll need their help.

If you’re ready to learn how ActionIQ can help you drive personalization at scale, let’s talk.

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