Personalization: Going Beyond a Name in the Subject Line

Our Amazon and Google-driven digital economy makes it more challenging than ever for online retailers to stand out.

According to a Bloomberg study, 55% of customer product searches originate on Amazon, up 11% from the year prior. Increasing online competition even further, Google recently announced their new Shopping Actions program, where customers can shop products via Google Assistant and Search whether they’re on a mobile, desktop, or voice-controlled device. With the potential for Shopping Actions to adopt a Google AdWords bidding model, middle-market retailers and growing businesses with low advertising spend will have limited opportunities to reach their audience.

According to Campaign Monitor, 74% of marketers say targeted personalization improves customer engagement and on average, increase sales by 20%.

Gaining visibility and differentiating your business in this hyper-competitive online market requires reaching your customers at the right time, with the right products and services, using strategically tailored messaging. Ultimately, it’s time to get personal.

When asked to identify one capability that will be essential to future marketing, 33% of marketers answered “personalization”. It makes sense. Long ago were the days we could expect customers to find us; now it’s important that we find them. Knowing and capitalizing on where they are in the purchase funnel, what they want, and how to reach them is essential for conversion.

Urban Outfitters is one example of a business utilizing dynamic content on their ecommerce site. Featured products on the homepage change based on the type of products a user has previously clicked on. Instead of relying on customers to remember what they wanted, the site predicts the customer’s future behavior and automatically puts them into the consideration phase, right at the beginning of their shopping experience.

urban outfitters personalized banner

On the left is the default homepage, featuring summer apparel and accessories.
After clicking through three to five pairs of sneakers, the homepage adapts to feature streetwear. Source: Urban Outfitters

Personalization isn’t limited to previous site activity though; personalization can capitalize on geolocation, purchase behaviors, and even current weather. Postmates sends push alerts to cities experiencing rain with tailored messaging around staying dry and ordering in. Retailers segment their customers so that users who only shop during a sale are only emailed during sales. Successful businesses are learning when their customers need their products, and utilizing that data to segment and target audiences accordingly.

But, where to start? From the ecommerce site to paid search, there are several channels that can benefit from personalization. In a perfect world, every marketing effort would be perfectly tailored to your audience. However, implementing a crawl, walk, run strategy is vital to testing this method on your audience.

As of 2016, email has a median 122% ROI, over 4x higher than social media and paid search.

Utilizing email marketing to navigate personalized experiences is a strategic way to begin. After all, with preexisting data available and options for automation, email is an obvious way to tailor your messaging and segment your audience, at scale. Email is a crowded market though, with the average person receiving 130 emails in their inbox per day, and only opening 22%. When targeted correctly, with strategic messaging and design, however, email can be your highest converting marketing effort.

birchbox email

Birchbox is transparent with how they make their product recommendations, establishing customer trust and increasing conversions. Source: Birchbox

Email personalization can be broken down into two main components: products and content. Both, when done well, capitalize on harnessing previously obtained data to predict future purchasing behavior.

In order for email marketing to be successful, it’s necessary that marketers pivot from communicating to their customers what they just did to what they can do next, across both promotional and transactional emails.

Product personalization may seem simple, but you’d be surprised at how many campaigns get it wrong. From emailing sales promotions directly after product purchases to sending product promotions that are identical to previously purchased products, there are endless ways to annoy and slowly lose your audience. Instead, utilize the customer data you have to predict relevant purchases for your customers.

For example, if you’re a clothing retailer and a large portion of your email list lives in New York, you can create a segment based on that location and promote winter coats during October or November, right at the time people are thinking about purchasing. Even better, send it out the first day weather dips below fifty degrees in that area. Or, segmenting and promoting coats to anyone who has purchased winter boots in the last thirty days would capitalize on the same need, utilizing previous purchase history. With products, it’s important to reach customers in the moment, or else they may not find your products otherwise.

Personalized content, on the other hand, can be essential to capturing interest and making your customers feel valued, resulting in successful conversions. By changing the imagery of their emails to match their customers’ cities Campaign Monitor increased their CTR by 29%. Personalization platforms make it simple to utilize everything from location, names, genders, sizes, account settings, previous purchases, and other data to make customers feel like messaging is relevant to them. Whether that means featuring men or women in your email imagery or incorporating high-level information about them in the content of the email, it’s more likely to capture attention.


“The biggest change in personalization is going to be marketers using it in the first place.”

–Valerie Decker, Digital Marketing Solutions Consultant, Gorilla Group


JetBlue Anniversary Email

jetBlue emails customers one year after they have subscribed to celebrate their “anniversary” and encourage customers return to the website to purchase a plane ticket. Source: jetBlue

It’s impossible to talk about customer data without talking about privacy. The line between personalized and creepy is thin and sometimes hard to see. Generally, relying on actions taken on the website is a safe choice that customers expect. If you’re unsure about your audience’s expectations, it can be useful to test smaller personalized strategies before incorporating geolocation or other hyper-personalized techniques. If the response is positive and the conversions are working, it’s safe to slowly incorporate more until you find a healthy balance.

For middle-market retailers, the race to the top five spots of Google and Amazon can be an over- crowded effort and an unlikely win. With more options for consumers and more competition for online retailers, it’s not enough to rely on generic mass- produced messaging. It’s critical to give consumers what they’ve been taught to expect, messaging and recommendations that identify and resolve their needs, before they even type them in.