Personalizing the digital experiences of your customers, prospects and audience is crucial to both understanding your customer and helping them feel understood. In understanding your customer, you build multiple layers of insight into what makes them tick, what they’re experiencing, and why they might be interested in how you can help them. In helping them feel understood, personalization lets you customize messaging as specifically as possible to meet them where they are in their buying journey or as a customer. Personalization comes from using data you’re learning about the people engaging with your web experiences to craft tailored messages based on that insight.

Here’s a quick example of a personalization fail from my inbox:

This email comes from a company that I buy a lot of sneakers from. I’m a member of their premium group, which means I pay an annual membership. I can go right now and look at the last year of orders I’ve made from them. And you know what? I haven’t bought a single pair of Asics. They’re not my preferred shoe for running or lifestyle. So why send me an email about Asics? It’s a waste of time for both of us.

Clearly I’m on an email list, and like a lot of companies they’ve likely done minimal segmentation of their list, if any. I’m maybe on a “running shoe” list. They certainly have the data, so why not only send me emails about the brand of sneaker I buy most, or let me know when a certain style I’ve researched goes on sale? I’d pay a lot more attention to that kind of offer.

Here’s an example of better personalization:

This company did pay attention to my interests, because I was recently researching console tables at their website. This is much more actionable for both of us. They didn’t send me an email about furniture in general, or about tables more specifically, but about console tables very specifically.

This is an example of basic personalization based on search activity or pages visited on a website. But you don’t need to have powerful search algorithms plugged in to start creating personalization strategies with your content. You can get started by asking three simple questions.

1. What Is Their Functional Role?

The functional role is, I think, the most basic understanding of somebody’s position relative to their doing business with you. In the case of the console table, my functional role might be “interested in console tables.” In my own marketing, the functional role of my audience is often marketing pro, sales pro or executive. It might be size of business or professional title. Or, like the table shopping example, it might be a key area of interest. If I ran a gym, for instance, I might try to find out if a potential customer is new to fitness or experienced with fitness.

My guidance is to try and uncover the functional role early in your relationship with somebody – maybe as an additional question on a subscription form or as a survey or trigger link inside a welcome email. Keep it simple so you don’t overwhelm a new subscriber. If you do nothing else, this basic piece of information – like with my console table shopping vs the running shoes – can help you craft more meaningful messages to a more captivated audience.

2. What Is Their Motivation?

Another layer in is understanding what brought this person to you or your solutions. This is where you’re investigating, looking to understand what’s driving an individual. In the example of the gym, it might be helpful for me to know if somebody has specific fitness goals or if they’re just trying to get off the couch and put down the Doritos. I worked with an auto dealer where we helped salespeople understand how to adapt their entire position and “pitch” based on if somebody was making an elective decision to buy a car – essentially a luxury purchase – vs a distressed purchase, where they were forced into having to make an expensive purchase they hadn’t necessarily planned for. Think about what an unwelcome slap in the face it might be for a distressed buyer to later receive an email promoting a top of the line luxury vehicle. Situational awareness is key in marketing, and understanding what motivates people can help us develop that.

There are several ways to try and define motivation. You can ask – maybe another survey or trigger link in an email. I wouldn’t recommend asking as an additional question for a new subscriber, but you might have it be a new question for an existing subscriber when they take advantage of a content upgrade or register for a new event or even make a new purchase. Or you can make inferences based on the content they’re engaging with most. I’ll explain more in a moment.

3. What Is Their Emotional Need?

Their emotional need is related to motivation but isn’t quite the same. What are they frustrated with or struggling with? What are they excited about or looking forward to? When you understand the emotional state your prospect or customer your personalization can get really pinpointed. That distressed car buyer might really appreciate an email or blog post about How To Get 100,000 More Miles On Your Car, or Saving Money On Car Insurance. Or back to the gym example, a person might be motivated to look into a new gym to lose weight but their emotional need is encouragement.

Defining emotional need requires a little more reading between the lines. Asking too many questions can feel nosy, so you might set up special triggers or events around the different kinds of content you’re creating. If somebody is reading a lot of posts and emails from you about staying on track, more better decisions at mealtimes, or sticking to a fitness schedule you might infer different things about them than the person who’s reading a lot about the latest fitness gadget or how to plan your vacations around big races.

Creating Shortcuts

You can shortcut your ability to understand this with how you’re targeting some of your paid advertising. A Facebook ad that specifically attracts older men who are interested in marathon running, for instance, obviously gives you a lot of information at once. Or use the exact language in your ad that helps you most understand your customer. “Are you looking to get off the couch and start feeling healthier? Download our ebook now.” As you target specific demographics and then connect conversions to meaningful segments in your automation platform you’ll build specific personas over time. My guidance is to start simple and let complexity, where necessary, naturally evolve. Start with just two of three kinds of profiles that you’d like to nature more personally, and keep your questions simple. You can get much more granular and specific down the road. One obstacle to getting started with personalization is letting yourself get overwhelmed with possibility. Simplifying your criteria and developing few “filters” helps you get off the runway with meaningful and actionable insights.

Putting It Together

When you put it all together a profile emerges. For instance, Avengers Gym might find that their subscriber Tony Stark is:

  • New to fitness (Functional Role)
  • Interested in family fitness (Possible Motivation)
  • Looking to race his first 5K (Motivation)
  • Reading articles on getting faster, best running gear, and strength training (Emotional Need: Excitement and Aspirational)

But subscriber Bruce Banner might be:

  • New to fitness (Functional Role)
  • Coach potato (Functional Role, possible Motivation)
  • Looking to work out 30 minutes a few times a week (Motivation)
  • Reading articles about health benefits, medical advice, nutrition and weight loss (Emotional need: concern or worry)

Avengers Gym might craft sales messaging to Tony Stark inviting him to join the monthly running club and maybe to aim for that 10k in the fall. It might invite Bruce Banner to take advantage of one-on-one coaching or the gym’s done-for-you meal planning.

Summing Up

Something is better than nothing in personalization – the keys are to start thinking differently about your audience and how it’s engaging with your digital content, start paying attention to that engagement, and start making new decisions about how to connect specifically based on insights you learn from that engagement. It also takes time to develop a sophisticated understanding, but starting with understanding a person’s functional role, motivation and emotional need can help you quickly develop some essentials to building better relationships.

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Chris Bintliff

Chris Bintliff helps organizations create marketing that makes money. His Not Really Rocket Science platform helps drive a modern marketing engine that attracts customers, builds relationships and delivers sales opportunities. When he’s not writing, building, designing, delivering, speaking, teaching or strategizing (is that a word?) he enjoys talking about himself in the third person. Learn more about what he does and how he does it.
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