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Personalisation must mature to truly embrace customer centricity

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Jirsak)

Personalisation is the big buzzword in the age of ecommerce. Companies are talking about it and consumers are craving more unique experiences, so it may not be a surprise that investment in the technology is on the rise, with 90 per cent of consumers confirming they find personalisation appealing and 80 per cent admitting they would be more likely to give their business to a company that offers a personalised experience.

Recent years have seen brands publicise their efforts in their space. L’Oreal’s Chief Digital Officer, Lubomira Rochet, has spoken publicly on the company’s focus on enhancing customer experience through personalisation. And Mark Parker, CEO of Nike, has outlined Nike’s goal to be “more personal at scale” investing in the development of Nike+ loyalty programmes and personalised shopping experience apps such as SNKRS.

It’s this notion of ‘personalisation’ that got me thinking. While I don’t question the effectiveness of the approach taken by L’Oreal, nor the practice of legendary sports brand Nike, I fear the term is overused. Marketers need to ask themselves if this is really what we’re striving for as an industry – or is it something greater?

Is personalisation enough?

No matter where you sit within the technology ecosystem, we’re consumers first and foremost. To that end, we’re often on the receiving end of the marketing industry’s efforts. And if I’m truthful, the idealistic view of ‘personalisation’ often paints a very different picture in practice.

When was the last time you received targeted content promoting a product you’ve already purchased? Or, worse still, a product you have no interest in? Incidents such as these are too commonplace for us to sit back and accept that our work here is done.

Some personalisation efforts fall short, because vital context is overlooked such as each customer’s sentiment, preferred channels, recent experiences and crucially, intent. Building ‘intent driven journey’s’ is the game changer brands need to embrace. Intent-driven journeys require immediate action if organisations are to provide a convenient, seamless experience for the customer. It is important for companies to tap into all all available context, across every trackable channel, and communicate effectively during the moment an intended message is relevant.

Put simply, personalisation isn’t enough for today’s savvy consumers. Technology can take us to greater depths, and the businesses that harness these opportunities will be the winners.

As customers now expect an experience that feels individual, brands are under more pressure than ever before to ensure the customer journey is as seamless as people expect and that all their previous actions, interests and behaviours enhance the experience they’re on. And those expectations are ever evolving. Even if you’re not moving forward, your competitors are and will continue to. There is no doubt, the benchmark is set.

We’re individuals, after all

There are limitations with a focus on the current approaches to personalisation that mean it’s just not personal enough. Consumers are still being targeted in segments, without that unique individual touch. Insights derived from customer intent can tell us a lot about individual purchases, preferences and general browsing behaviours. From this, we’re able to come to a conclusion around who this person is and what might appeal to them, in order to serve the next best experience and recommendations to the individual in real time.

But, today we are able to go even further than that. As an industry, we must get to a place where we avoid assumptions and instead add context and relevant insights to form an intent driven recommendation for a person. If we avoid that all-important context, we’re merely missing the point and our efforts will fall on deaf ears.

People want to be treated as individuals. For marketers, this requires a fundamental shift away from personalisation to individualisation. Organisations need to be obsessed with their customers. It’s not enough to talk about customer centricity, they need to act on it and prove their relevance, through personal, contextually-driven, in the moment, interactions.

Failing this, businesses risk a sorry fate whereby customers feel misunderstood and un-engaged. Crucially, customers, not companies, will be the judges here.

There is a significant opportunity for brands to embrace. Consumers want brands to adapt to their needs, with findings estimating 72 per cent of consumers will only consider brands that show they understand and care about them. Brands investing in greater customer experiences in line with expectations will outperform their competitors.

Personalisation vs Individualisation

The concepts of ‘personalisation’ and ‘individualisation’ may sound similar on the surface, but really these are two very different ways of thinking which sit at opposite sides of the ‘customer experience’ spectrum.

With a ‘personalisation’ mindset, customers are viewed as targets to be aimed at with a great level of precision. However, when thinking about ‘individualisation’, brands understand that the customer sits at the very heart of the business and each one is truly unique. The latter approach considers customers as partners in a relationship that creates value for both parties leading to higher levels of trust.

Understanding what it takes to be truly customer centric is the difference between having a loyal and helpful relationship with a customer, as opposed to just shouting semi-relevant ideas at them.

In order to move towards individualisation, brands have the opportunity to go deeper than ever before, turning data into something valuable – this is where context and relevance will be the holy grail. In order to truly understand and tailor interactions, taking the right action at the perfect moment, real-time and relevancy is the magic dust that hails above all else.

So, what does it mean to be contextual in today’s always-on digital world? Interpreting important signals that a customer gives you across all channels and touchpoints, ensuring every interaction is accounted for. This is the crucial context that should inform every future interaction you have with a customer.

Taking action based on data without considering behaviours and context will undermine your efforts and potentially be detrimental to your future relationship with the customer. Treating your customer as an individual means truly understanding all context surrounding an interaction, enabling you to increase relevancy and instil long-term trust.

In essence, this is what individualisation means today; taking everything important that you know about a customer, marrying it together with intent to form a clear ever-evolving profile and then using this knowledge to foster an on-going effective and relevant conversation across every touchpoint or wherever and whenever a customer interacts.

Rethinking the rulebook

There is a limit to how much of this can be delivered using the traditional approach to personalisation. Marketers ought to rethink the rulebook and recognise the expectations of their customers have evolved and that, to deliver a premium experience, they will need to provide a more mature solution in the form of individualised journeys for their customers. It is only by using technology to identify signals and understand intent at scale and in real time, that marketers can inform decisions across the end to end customer lifecycle.

Unleashing this data and having the tools to make sense of it is key for brands to truly embrace customer centricity.

Jason Hemingway, CMO, Thunderhead

Jason Hemingway is CMO of customer engagement tech business, Thunderhead. With over 17 years' experience in B2B marketing, Jason is responsible for Thunderhead’s brand and marketing, and go-to-market execution.