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Overcoming Personalization Paralysis with Context - Death by Buzz Words

Kris Kieper
Kris Kieper

I almost titled this post, “How to Personalize the Customer Journey using Context to achieve Digital Transformation.” 

If I had a dime for every email campaign over the past year that’s promoted at least one of those buzz words… I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I took the straight forward approach.

While the buzz-riddled campaigns typically do get me to click in to see what new wisdom or tactics might be shared (and admittedly partly why I chose to employ a few in the actual title), I’m also a bit frustrated with their overuse and the assumptive nature in which they’re used. 

What are the buzz words really getting at? Do we really need more terms and more hype? Isn’t there a much simpler message?  Yes, there is. There is always a simpler a message. And simpler is usually better. 

The hype is about knowing your end customer as best as you possible can and doing all that you can to meet their needs. Why? Because that should translate into more business for you. We make it sound like we truly care, and by that I mean empathetically care, about the end customer. It’s not that we don’t care. But let’s be honest. We care mostly about the end result of meeting the customer’s needs –that being a conversion. Whatever that conversion is for your business, it’s why you’re in business. That’s just Business 101 straight talk. 

We all want to get to know our customers’ needs better. Where it gets difficult is figuring out how to do that. And then to try and factor in all the different types of customers and their needs. That’s where the hype really kicks in. And the paralysis. 

Deciphering the Buzz

As much as buzz words make me cringe, there is always merit to considering the concepts they stand for. Once you can break them down, it’s much easier to adopt their principles. I’ll attempt to decipher the buzz words from my “almost title” here.  

“How to Personalize the Customer Journey using Context to achieve Digital Transformation”

Digital is changing how we go about doing business every day and that change is what is behind transformation. How has your organization adapted and/or changed? Do you know what the word “digital” means for your business? If not, check out my white paper “A Roadmap to Digital Maturity” to help you get started. 

Context is key to understanding how we can best relate to our customers. Do you understand the types of situations your customers are in and how their needs are influenced by those situations? Think about the phrase, “taken out of context.” We all understand what that means – something is being interpreted through the wrong lens using the wrong situation, perceptions or facts. So take the inverse of that phrase in order to better understand what it looks like to be “taken in context” and you have to analyze the situation, the perceptions and the facts at hand. It’s not just about knowing what content, what people, and what time. It’s so much more. It’s about understanding the driving behaviors, needs, pressures, triggers, and goals. Personas can be helpful to understanding context as they are the fictional characters that you can assign context to in order to better understand them. Have you begun to address your customer needs in light of the context they are operating within? 

Customers are often on a journey, or a series of steps, that takes them from an initial awareness of their need to conclusion/resolution of that need. Have you mapped out what those typical steps could look like? Do you know how those steps line up to your lead generation tactics? And backing up a step, do you have a lead generation (or demand) funnel defined? 

Once you start to make some strides around those three things – digital, context and the customer journey – then you’re in a much better position to think about the overarching customer experience and how personalization, tailoring not just the information and content but the entire experience to the customer’s needs, can help you tie it all together with a nice bow. 

But wait, there’s another term. Experience. Its meaning seems obvious. But can you put words to it? It’s actually quite cerebral and complex.  It’s the combination of the different mental, emotional, physical, etc. states of responses we have to an event and it can also be the accumulation of related events over time. We rarely respond to a stimulus or event in a vacuum – usually we have some sort of preconceived bias, notion, opinion, or prior experience. It’s the accumulation of a customer’s good experiences over time that can be the most difficult achievement for a business because it requires a moderate to high level of consistency with every single interaction. And all of those interactions can cross many different channels, departments and individuals within the business. It’s a very tall order. 

It’s no wonder paralysis sets in for today’s digital marketers. 

Similarly, sometimes too much strategy can be overwhelming. When my colleagues and I at Aware are consulting with our clients, we hear time and time again how much they value strategy but how hard it is for them to bite off and show ROI from it. It’s overwhelming for them. 

I’m a huge believer in the value of creating overarching strategies and plans. I also know from experience how hard large scale strategies can be to act upon or to realize progress from. But they’re not always meant to provide action. Oftentimes their purpose is just to cast a shared vision and create alignment.   

Five Steps to Start Small

Thankfully, there are ways you can begin to wiggle free from both digital buzz-paralysis and from strategic immobility. Mainly by employing the concept of “simple.” Just start simple. 

Follow the series of definition steps outlined below and hopefully you’ll assemble the puzzle pieces you need to see how you can get started. Try to not worry about the forest for once. Just focus on a single tree – a single type of customer. You can decide how big and prominent that tree should be – a grandfather oak in a centuries old oak forest (i.e. your most well-known and largest customer type) or a tiny oak sapling trying to capture just enough sunlight through the thick canopy (i.e. a smaller yet easier to quantify customer). There are pros and cons to either approach. But the point is, pick a direction and go.


  • Digital – Start by focusing on what you’re doing on your flagship website and any ways it is experiencing change. What are the key initiatives, processes, technologies and interactions that are driving that site and can they help you define what “digital” means for your organization? Don’t worry about the customer at this point. This is just about putting some meaning to the word “digital”.

  • Customer – Next, choose a customer type (most abundant, common, prominent, revenue driving, etc.) or a specific known customer that is using that website. 

  • Context – Then describe, either in broad stereotypes or based on known facts, what that customer’s typical situation is like. Go beyond their need and look at their surroundings and circumstances. You can even create personas to help you distinguish any unique circumstances for that customer. 

  • Journey – Now define what lead generation tactics offered on your website apply to that customer and map those to a simple lead funnel. What customer steps line up to the Attract versus Convert phase? And how can a conversion be repeated time and time again by looping back through the funnel which represents the Advocacy phase? (It’s worth noting that Attract, Convert and Advocate are the three phases within the Sitecore Customer Experience Maturity Model.) Then take a step back and decide how that customer even got to the Attract phase in the first place where they became aware of your business. What steps did they take to get into the funnel and how did they make their way through the funnel? Journey Mapping, defining the steps a customer can go through as they interact with your company, can be an informative exercise to seeing the experience through the customer’s eyes and not from the often clouded perspective of your business. 

  • Personalization – Finally, you are ready to think about how to best personalize that customer’s experience via your website (remember, the site is your “digital” puzzle piece) in a way that impacts their journey and takes into consideration the context they are working within. Where do you want to drive them on the site and what do you anticipate their needs to be once there? How can you best attract their type of need by targeting a piece of content or by offering a tailored communication? Does their interaction predicate some sort of follow through process from you to them? What can you learn from their behavior and interaction? Feel free to be creative. You don’t need to be tethered to just A/B testing at this step. 

By simplifying your focus to the above five steps or puzzle pieces, it becomes much easier and faster to create an impact on the customer experience. “Experience” becomes the culmination of all of those pieces assembled together and working in harmony.
By starting small, you can dabble with the process your team needs to take to define the pieces and target different types of customers. You’ll learn some things along the way that will change how you do it the next time. You’ll gain more and more confidence each time and realize that it’s really not hard to start and just try. It only takes starting. 

If you’re using a Customer Experience Management tool like the Sitecore Experience Platform, you’ll also quickly gain access to real data from your personalization efforts so you can react and adapt.

So just start simple.

Dabble, try, tweak and dabble some more.

And don’t let all the buzz stand in your way. 

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