Website personalization strategy and best practices, with examples

An introduction to the process of real-time website personalization, including strategies to implement, challenges to consider, and examples to get started.

Director of Marketing, Dynamic Yield

At one time, businesses venturing into digital needed only but to build a good looking website, publish fresh content, and make smart investments in search, paid media, and email to attract and engage visitors online. As the internet landscape became more saturated, rising customer acquisition costs gave way to A/B testing, whereby a healthy influx of conversions could be generated by optimizing the site’s various elements to determine the best performing experience and serve it across traffic. 

But in a world with 1.94 billion websites and an increasing number of online channels being folded into the customer journey, the stakes are even higher. Today, if brands want to influence decision-making, they’ll need to invest in website personalization and resonate with visitors on an individual level. 

What is website personalization? 

Once commonly associated with connecting CRM data to an ESP for customization of *|FNAME|* in the body of an email, back then, personalization of this kind was a mere tactic. Although, poor data management practices often meant efforts such as these backfired, leading to less than optimal experiences. 

Ancient history, the number of personalization use cases today is so vast, marketers can no longer simply stop by Susie’s desk and request a list of the most up-to-date customers to import for the next email blast. Spanning channels, strategies, and teams, personalization is now a full-fledged discipline.

The process of serving one-to-one experiences as opposed to one-to-many, instead of catering to the “average user” or focusing on generic correlations between groups as is done with segmentation, marketers are now interested in dynamically responding to a customer’s unique needs to increase the relevance of their communications. 

The key benefits of web personalization

While some may operate under the assumption that personalization is just some new fad in an ever-changing landscape of digital marketing tactics, consumers place a high value on being acknowledged as an individual and tend to buy more from companies that tailor their experiences. In fact, in a survey of over 3,000 consumers, 63% reported personalization was expected as a standard service from businesses. 

More than just a buzzword, online visitors are diverse and each one of them comes with their own distinct interests, desires, and motivations. Therefore, serving the default site experience, or even one built for a broader audience, isn’t the most effective way to drive action or conversions. 

For this reason, marketers are turning to personalization to better anticipate and respond to consumer needs – a practice that has quickly become an industry standard. Which, according to Gartner, now represents 14% of marketing spend.

Common challenges in dynamic website personalization

It would be disingenuous to say that personalization is easy to implement, which is largely why it carries so much weight as a key differentiator and advantage against competitors.

However, personalization has undergone remarkable evolutions amid the proliferation of emerging technologies. And the real challenges that plagued marketing practitioners only a few years ago can now be remedied: 

  1. Data challenges
  2. Resource heavy
  3. Scalability issues

1. Data silos that exist within many technology stacks can now be eliminated for the creation and actioning of a single view of the customer.

2. While personalization relies heavily on developers, templating engines and improved workflows for campaign design have reduced the burden on key stakeholders.

3. With a host of permutations and combinations, picking a winning variation in the face of a constantly changing customer base was nearly impossible.

The dissipation of these barriers to entry, as well as many others, has not only made personalization attainable for all but also incredibly powerful.

The bare necessities for site personalization

As highlighted above, taking an individualized approach to marketing involves several moving parts, requiring brands to connect, consolidate, analyze, and activate their data for the delivery of highly-targeted interactions. Though, this can only happen when the following technological components are present at a personalization provider’s (also called “personalization engine“) core:

Key capabilities of a personalization engine:

Unified dataset. Ingestion of data from multiple sources must be made available for the establishment of a cohesive data set based on important events, actions, and behaviors captured at every touchpoint. Businesses should, therefore, consider replacing several point solutions with that of a holistic, omnichannel personalization platform, allowing data to flow freely and be used for producing powerful, contextual experiences

Open architecture. Integration with various tools from the marketing technology stack, no matter what the vendor, should happen seamlessly to enable powerful personalization use cases. A high level of flexibility can reduce engineering time and generate a significant amount of value in new profit by accelerating a business’ rate of deployment.

Decision logic. Automation of analysis and delivery are necessary to increase efficiencies, scale operations, and ensure each customer receives the optimal experience. As the number of tests, variations, and segments increases along an experimentation roadmap, assessing the impact becomes an incredibly data-heavy task, a feat that can only be scaled with machine learning.

Employing the right personalization provider is incredibly important, not only ensuring initial marketing dollars are well spent, but also that results are generated in a sustainable, scalable fashion.

Types of data used for web personalization

A visitor should be targeted according to any available data source, and there are many conditions brands can use to ensure the right experience is delivered to the right user at the right time.

Types of data used for web personalization
Types of data used for web personalization

The options are seemingly endless, and by combining data sources, marketers can get super granular in their outreach. However, the more criteria applied, the greater the likelihood an individual may not meet the web personalization campaign’s targeting conditions.

Broken out by high-level categories:

Audience Conditions

Description

Location

The country, region, or city a user is located in.

Technology

A user’s device-type (desktop, mobile, tablet), operating system, browser, and even screen solution.

Traffic sources

The specific traffic source a user is visiting from, be it direct or paid, via referral search or social.

3rd party data

Information about a user that has been collected from outside sources and aggregated by a DMP.

Behavior

Important user interactions such as clicks, add-to-carts, or purchase events, as well as the number of page views, URLs visited, and so on.

Explicit data

CRM data that has been collected about a user or has been provided intentionally through surveys and registration forms.

Time

The select dates, days of the week, or time of day the experience is to be served to a user.

Current page

The type of page a user lands on, whether its a specific URL, the homepage, a product detail page (PDP), or cart page.

When ranking these sources, although 3rd party data represents the largest percent of site traffic with this data (~75%), it is the least accurate to personalize based on. Visitor tracking represents the next largest share (~60%), with a medium degree of accuracy – it is, however, effective for understanding overall traffic patterns and can be leveraged for better the anonymous visitor’s time on-site. 

Both site behavior captured by algorithms (~30%) and CRM data (~15%) are considered the most accurate, and while small in size, should make highly relevant interactions among returning and loyal visitors.

Size and accuracy of common data sources used for website personalization
Size and accuracy of common data sources used for website personalization

Types of website personalization

Site personalization comes in many different shapes and sizes, each use case designed with its own objective in mind. These experiences can be tested, optimized, and personalized for each visitor – and together, are powerful tools for improving the entire funnel. 

Experience Type

Use Case

Dynamic Content

Replace on-site hero banners, call-to-action buttons, promotional modules, or any other in-page element with dynamically-generated content variations.

Recommendations

Display content or products according to attributes in the data feed, visitor interactions, and trends in visitor behavior.

Overlays and popups

Highlight a particular offer using a large, prominent popup.

Notifications and widgets

Serve a subtle, unobtrusive element in a corner of the screen or as floating bars and sliding drawers.

Messaging

Tailor promotional, social proof, urgency, or CTA-based copy across the site.

Landing page

Personalize content variations for each visitor instead of a single variation (one-size-fits-all).

Menu personalization

Reorganize or change the order of the navigation bar based on each visitor’s affinity or preferred categories.

Search personalization

Populate search results according to visitor preferences and real-time behavior.

And now, as the customer journey is no longer linear and includes multiple touchpoints, brands have even more opportunities to provide seamless, relevant experiences through personalization, whether they are online, in-store, accessing a site via desktop, opening an email, or launching a mobile app. 

Website personalization examples

Here are just a few ways those in the field are merging customer data for greater web content personalization. 

Serving personalized homepage content and recommendations based on user affinity

To serve relevant product recommendations, a large retailer of precious metals created Audiences based on their own first-party data. Using an affinity-based strategy, every visitor is exposed to the most relevant product recommendations at the top of the homepage.

Web Personalization use case: Serving personalized homepage content and recommendations based on user affinity

A real web personalization example from a large retailer of precious metals on how it maximizes engagement opportunities with first-party data for the delivery of product recommendations that the individual will be most likely to engage with. Learn more about serving personalized homepage content and recommendations based on user affinity.

Leveraging loyalty program data to tailor the user experience

To boost engagement and reduce both bounce rates, a large cosmetics retailer uses its CRM data to serve individualized communication around member loyalty status.

Web Personalization use case: Leveraging loyalty program data to tailor the user experience

A real web personalization example from a large cosmetics retailer on how it leveraged the context of a user’s relationship with the brand to truly cater to their specific interests, needs, and preferences. Learn more about leveraging loyalty program data to tailor the user experience.

Designing personalized landing pages based on user behavior

To deploy the best possible landing page experiences, a leading airline passenger protection company personalizes and optimizes all of its landing pages, serving variations based on each user’s browsing history, geolocation, referring campaign, time of day, and more.

Web Personalization use case: Designing personalized landing pages based on user behavior

A real web personalization example from Europe’s leading airline passenger protection company on how it utilized as much available data as possible to make an instant connection with visitors, increasing the likelihood of conversion. Learn more about designing personalized landing pages based on user behavior.

There are hundreds of innovative personalization use cases available to increase conversion rates, average order value (AOV), gross profit, and other imperative metrics. The benefits of personalization are clear. In fact, McKinsey reports experiences such as these have led to reduced acquisition costs by as much as 50%, revenue uplifts of 5-15%, and increased efficiency of marketing spend up to 30%.

Website personalization and SEO

Genuine concerns have arisen over whether serving dynamically generated content can negatively impact Search Engine Optimization (SEO) rankings. And while Google acknowledges the use of dynamic website personalization in improving the overall experience, from a technical point of view, there are four main risks that need to be taken into consideration when tailoring web pages.

  1. Cloaking the content presented to the search engine spider
  2. Using the wrong type of redirect
  3. URL and content Duplications
  4. Web loading performance

A series of experiments conducted by Dynamic Yield to determine how personalization affects a site’s SEO found Google does crawl and index dynamic, JavaScript-based content

For a summary of the results as well as practical guidelines to help you avoid any unnecessary penalties from Google, check out this post on “The (real) impact of A/B testing and personalization on SEO.”

A simple website personalization strategy

There are a few practical tips brands can follow to ensure the greatest impact from their site personalization efforts, not only right out of the gate but also as they continue to scale. 

You don’t need all the data in the world – A common misconception among companies is that a lot of data is needed to personalize in a meaningful way, when, in fact, this isn’t the case. While the more robust the dataset, the better you understand your audience, simple web behavioral information can be easily collected and segmented to enhance on-site experiences. So marketers shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to collect all available information, as this information will already provide a great starting point for effective website personalization.

Avoid boiling the ocean – Personalization is a journey, not a finish line and companies should start small by testing simple elements of the digital experience. For example, the banner on the homepage, images on Product Detail Pages (PDPs), recommendation strategies, and so forth. Easy-to-deploy personalization use cases are critical to achieving executive buy-in, gaining trust in the program, and accelerating your site personalization initiatives.

Dig into your audience data – Once you’ve run enough experiments, you can start analyzing the data collected for interesting correlations between groups such as intent-level, common traffic sources, or certain demographic / psychographic attributes. Visitors can then be served experiences based on important events, actions, and behaviors over time. 

AI can help with automation – Using algorithms that constantly collect all user data and signals, the best variation can be delivered to each individual user automatically, regardless of where they arrive from, what device they are using, and so on. This can greatly accelerate the process of experience delivery as well as increase accuracy.

Your efforts must evolve as your audiences do – Visitors change over time, and therefore, continuously optimizing web personalization campaigns is absolutely critical to maximizing results over the long-term. New tests should be created and run based on all available data, and existing campaigns will need to be iterated on to ensure experiences resonate with individuals as their behaviors evolve.

Welcome to the next generation of digital marketing

Success for any business looking to acquire and retain customers online is now predicated on the ability to tap into, understand, and reflect the needs, wants, and preferences individuals demonstrate throughout the course of their relationship with a brand. Built to do just that, website personalization has gained a permanent place in the marketer’s tool belt. 

If you are currently on the quest to find the platform best suited to execute on your digital customer experience vision, we’ve created a free Personalization RFP template designed for B2B and B2C companies to have a base set of questions to ask enterprise-class vendors as part of your company’s selection process.