John Michael Thomas
VP of Operations

Smoothing Out the Rocky Road to Personalization - Part 1

Aug 22, 2017
By: John Michael Thomas

Website personalization is a rapidly growing feature that is often highly sought after by both marketing teams and management.  Offering your site visitors personalization can help improve the user experience and target appropriate users with appropriate content. Ultimately, the goal of many personalization efforts is to improve conversion rates, increasing the number of visitors who take the actions desired by your organization, whether that means buying a product, downloading documents, or answering their own questions without the need to contact your support team; ultimately personalization has the potential to significantly improve your site.

But there are many different ways to implement personalization, all of which have impacts on both the user experience and the difficulty of implementation and maintenance. This three-part series will introduce web site personalization (including the definition, goals, and use cases), implementation considerations and challenges, and how personalization needs and challenges are solved in dotCMS, a leading open source Java CMS.

Part 1: What is Personalization?

Although the definitions of personalization may vary, at its core personalization means delivering different content to different site visitors. Personalization may change anything your visitors experience about your site, including the layout, choices available to the user, and the text, documents, images, and other content displayed to each visitor.

Customization vs. Personalization

Before we dig deeper into personalization, it may be helpful to make a distinction between customization and personalization.

Customization allows visitors to make their own choices about what content they see. For example, if you have both consumer and commercial products and you allow your visitors to filter the display to only show them consumer products, this is a form of customization. Customization means visitors may make manual selections that change what content is shown to them. However note that this also means that visitors must make manual choices in order for their experience to be tailored to their needs; visitors that don’t take the effort to customize their experience will see the same content displayed to first-time visitors.

In contrast, personalization automatically tailors the site to the visitor’s wants or needs. For example, if you recognize that a user was referred from a URL on a consumer electronics site and automatically filter your products to only show consumer products, this is a form of personalization. Since the process is automatic, it’s more likely to happen, and thus hopefully lead to a better visitor experience and greater conversion rates. However this also means that personalization usually requires significantly more development effort than customization, since your site must be able to identify user preferences and make decisions based on those preferences. This means that ultimately you’re anticipating user needs rather than being directly informed about them - which also means that sometimes your site may get it wrong.

What's the Point of Personalization? 

Although personalization is often understood to take into account the preferences of the visitor, personalization can - and should - also take into account the needs of your organization to ensure that the content delivered to different visitors helps your organization achieve its goals. The following are some common use cases with both of these needs in mind.

User Needs

Display Content a Visitor is Most Interested In

If you can display only the content a visitor is interested in, they can achieve their own goals faster, make decisions (such as purchasing) faster, and are more likely to return to your site for similar needs in the future. This is true whether the content is product information, blog articles, help documents, events, news articles, or even data from external feeds; all content on your site can potentially be tailored to the visitor’s preferences.

Hide Information a Visitor Doesn’t Need

Personalization can also include hiding inappropriate information. From the perspective of a visitor, hiding information may be more important than showing information, since it limits the number of choices a visitor needs to make - thus reducing click count and making it easier for a visitor to find information quickly.  However it’s important to also ensure that your personalization efforts don’t hide too much information or hide it too deep; if a visitor who has never been interested in one of your products in the past decides they want information on it, it shouldn’t be so deeply hidden that they can no longer find it.

Organizational Needs

Target Specific Information to Specific Users

Promotions, announcements, information about new products, and blog articles will meet your organization’s goals better when they’re displayed to appropriate visitors. For example, if you have products for both consumer and commercial markets, different promotions need to be created for each type of customer, and will be most effective if they’re displayed only to the appropriate type of customer.

Enable the User Experience to Automatically Change Over Time

Since personalization is automated, it provides the capability to automatically change the user experience over time, based on such characteristics as recent user activity (or lack thereof), user experience level, user location, and user industry or role. These automatic changes can reduce the development effort required to update and change your site as your site content changes; if your personalization efforts are anticipating visitor and organizational needs automatically, the user experience may change in an appropriate way when you simply add or remove content, without the need for rework or redesign of the site to incorporate the content changes.

Meeting Multiple Needs

Thankfully, there’s often a strong overlap between use cases that meet visitor needs and those that meet organizational needs. For example displaying a consumer product promotion to a consumer visitor both displays content the visitor is more likely to be interested in and targets the appropriate visitors to meet your organizational goals.

This is important because if you plan your personalization with these different use cases in mind, you may be able to reduce your development efforts by selecting personalization methods that address multiple purposes at the same time. For example, one way to more easily address multiple use cases at the same time is to be able to access content in the same ways regardless of its purpose; if you can use the same methods to access content managed for user needs (such as downloads) and content managed for organizational needs (such as promotions), the same development effort will enable personalization for both types of content.

Giving Users What They Want

Website personalization offers the potential to allow you to automatically display different content to different visitors to your site, based on both user preferences and organizational needs.  When considering personalization for your site, it’s helpful to make a distinction between customization (which allows users to make their own choices about what content they see) and personalization (which automatically identifies user preferences and chooses what content to display to the visitor). There are a number of common personalization use cases, including what content to display or hide to meet user needs, and how personalization can both target users and reduce web site maintenance efforts to better meet organizational needs, and keeping these in mind when planning personalization efforts on your site can help you to reduce your development efforts by ensuring that your efforts meet multiple needs at the same time.


Looking for more? Check out Part 2 of our Personalization Series that focuses on implementation. 

Filed Under:


Hyper-Personalization: It's Time to Truly Meet Your Customers

Whereas before, using the customer’s name in an email would suffice, a hyper-personalized campaign uses browsing, purchasing, and realtime behavioral data from multiple channels and touchpoints to tailor content, products, and services to each user.


Recommended Reading

Why Global Brands Need a Multi-tenant CMS

Maintaining or achieving a global presence requires effective use of resources, time and money. Single-tenant CMS solutions were once the go-to choices for enterprises to reach out to different market...

14 Benefits of Cloud Computing and Terminology Glossary to Get You Started

What is cloud computing, and what benefits does the cloud bring to brands who are entering into the IoT era?

Headless CMS vs Hybrid CMS: How dotCMS Goes Beyond Headless

What’s the difference between a headless CMS and a hybrid CMS, and which one is best suited for an enterprise?