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Emily is 32 years old. She is a white female with a college degree and works in a law firm, making approximately $90,000 a year. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two kids, where they love to hike, camp and stay active outdoors. A bargain hunter, Emily rarely buys products at full price, is always in search of the best deal and has little brand loyalty, since she’s constantly chasing discounts. Annual sales, discount alerts and deal websites are major motivators for Emily, but she won’t spend extra on shipping and has no time for expired coupons. When it comes to online vs. in-store, like a true bargain hunter, Emily will follow the deal, whether it’s a notification via mobile app, a retailer email on her desktop or physical sign in a store window.

As a retailer, now that you’ve met Emily, you can start building a marketing plan that plays to her demographics and preferences. Based on her lifestyle, she may be interested in a loyalty program, where she can earn points – a win-win for both her and the retailer alike. Highlighting discounts via email or product pages will catch her attention and serving up deals based on her budget will increase the chances of a purchase.

So, now you’re ready to move full-speed ahead with a personalized strategy tailored to Emily, right? Wrong. Why? Because Emily isn’t a real person.

Personas like Emily’s were constructed to help retailers and businesses gain a better understanding of who their customers are, what drives them and how to keep them coming back. Fictional representations of large or important segments, personas (according to Pruitt and Adlin) provide three key benefits to the businesses that use them: helping shift their focus from themselves to the user or consumer; promoting better understanding of their audiences complex and diverse needs; and acting as a proxy for situations where this information is inaccessible.

The problem here is not the intention of personas – what could be bad about wanting to deliver a more customer-centric user experience? – but rather how this strategy is executed. According to Customer Think’s State of Buyer Personas survey, 57 percent of respondents did their first-ever buyer persona development initiative within the last two years, but despite those efforts, only 15 percent found this effective. What’s more, nearly 60 percent said they were frustrated their buyer personas were based on typical product management and sales intelligence. How could retailers possibly meet their customers’ needs if they’re building personas based on company initiatives?

The fact of the matter is, many retailers are still putting company goals first rather than letting customers lead the way. Not all hope is lost, though. Thankfully, we now have access to treasure troves of customer data, and AI and machine learning-powered tools to help us make sense of the customer journey. With these tech advances, retailers no longer have to look at perceived notions from different customer segments, but can hone in on individual customer preferences to deliver a truly personalized – not personified – experience.

However, to achieve this, retailers need to drill down to the individual level, otherwise there is simply not enough granularity to deliver the valuable experiences that today’s customers not only want, but expect. Individualization is the next progression of personalization; one that understands why customers are on your website or in your store, and capture that intent by truly understanding each shopper at an individual level.

While true personalization results in a 20 percent increase in sales and an uptick in return visits, only 15 percent of marketers go beyond broad segments and simple clusters and a measly 10 percent of top-tier retailers say they’re highly effective at personalization (Monetate). It’s clear that there’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to shifting from personas to personalization to individualization, but it’s critical to keep up with today’s shoppers.

Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, implementing an individualized marketing strategy won’t happen overnight. However, retail marketers can get started by taking some of these best practices into account:

  • Listen to your customers
  • Mine customer data for demographic information
  • Map the individual customer journey (and anticipate where they’ll go next)
  • Serve customers content that aligns with their goals and preferences
  • Continue evolving your marketing strategy with the customer

A truly personalized marketing strategy starts and ends with the individual customer, and with access to more information, advances in technology and a customer-centric mindset, more retailers will be able to achieve this.

This article first appeared in MediaPost.