forms of personalization

Most marketers understand the value of personalization. In fact, we recently found that 98% of marketers agree that personalization advances customer relationships. They understand that treating people as unique individuals — rather than treating them as if they were all the same — has real value. But when it’s time to get into the details, it’s not always clear what personalization actually looks like. Is personalization about including someone’s first name or company name in an email? Is it retargeted advertising? Is it product recommendations?

The short answer is that personalization is all of these things and more. Let’s explore the forms and formats of personalization in this blog post.

At the broadest level, there are two types of personalized experiences: interruptive and seamless.

Interruptive Experiences

Interruptive experiences are messages or content that a person does not necessarily expect to see and that are not integral to the current experience he is having. Many types of ads, emails and push notifications — as well as any web or app messages that overlay the existing page or screen — qualify as interruptive.

Interruptive experiences are best used when you want a message to grab someone’s attention or you want to encourage someone to take a specific action. These hard-to-miss messages can become annoying, however, so it’s important to use them sparingly and make them as relevant as possible.

Here are some of the most common interruptive experiences. Note that these experiences are interruptive to the experience whether they are personalized or not, but individuals are likely to be more receptive to them if they are personalized.

Pop-up Ads

Some ad types can be considered interruptive, like pop-ups or interstitials, since they visually interrupt a visitor’s experience. These ads ask visitors to stop what they were attempting to do to engage with ad content instead — and that can be a tough sell. We’ve all seen pop-ups across the internet that are irrelevant and annoying. As a result, ads like these are becoming less common than they were many years ago in favor of more seamless ad types, but they certainly still exist.

Mobile Push Notifications

Delivered on mobile devices, push notifications are similar to interruptive ad formats: they appear on a user’s screen when he’s not necessarily expecting them. They differ from ads, however, in that users typically opt-in to receive them, and they’re generally geared toward assisting users versus promoting products or offers. They can be sent to any person who has downloaded a mobile app — even when that app is not in use. Because they are used to interrupt any activity a person is currently engaged with on his phone or tablet, they should also be used sparingly. And they should leverage all the data a marketer has amassed from that person’s usage of the app (or other channels when applicable) to ensure that he receives only relevant notifications.

Outbound Email

Outbound emails are those that a person did not opt-in to receive. While not an ideal marketing tactic, using such emails can be valuable under certain circumstances.

For example, outbound emails are often used by B2B marketers to drive traffic to their sponsored booths at trade shows. Marketers may receive a list of attending companies in advance, and if they are not given the names of attendees, they may use a combination of data sources as well as their judgment about which employees might attend. Then they can send outbound emails to the people they have identified, leveraging effective messaging and incentives to encourage visitors to the company’s booth.

In this situation, marketers know very little about the recipients, but it’s always a good idea to make the emails as personalized as possible. In this case, the content should be relevant and valuable to the event as well as to the attendee’s industry or job title and role.

Onsite and In-App Messages

Finally, there are the experiences that take place on a company’s site or in its app. These are the messages that a marketer wants to ensure a visitor receives while engaging with the channel. Pop-ups, infobars and call-outs are the most common types of interruptive onsite or in-app experiences.

  • Pop-ups: As opposed to creating indiscriminate pop-ups that contain advertisements, marketers can deliver pop-ups on their own sites and apps with messages for their visitors and customers. Pop-ups tend to be very effective at catching someone’s attention, because they often need to be closed before the visitor can continue to view the page. But as we explained earlier, they can be intrusive to the overall site or app experience and should be used sparingly.
  • Infobars: Infobars are designed to capture a visitor’s attention by appearing at the top or bottom of a page. They persist as “sticky” messages that remain on the top or bottom of the user’s screen when scrolling, but they can be designed to be easily closed or dismissed. They are ideal for reminders, such as for upcoming sales or new content assets. They can either contain a simple informational message or a CTA that directs visitors to a specific page for more detail.
  • Callouts: Generally smaller and less conspicuous than other message formats, callouts draw attention to a particular area or feature within a page. We often see these used within web apps to point out a product’s new features or to ask users to take a tour, but they can be employed anytime you want to call attention to a page element on a website.

Each of these message types have their strengths and weaknesses, and this blog post dives into each one in more detail — including how to leverage personalization to make sure they are relevant to each person and add value to his overall experience.

Seamless Experiences

In contrast to the interruptive formats I just described, which are easily distinguishable from the rest of the customer’s experience, seamless experiences are an integral part of the experience and are often expected by the visitor or recipient. They include any type of content that is inserted, replaced, hidden or modified on a page or in-app.

Inline Ads

Seamless advertising formats such as banner, search and social ads are more commonly seen these days than interruptive formats like pop-ups. These are the ads that appear as “sponsored” posts on Facebook or LinkedIn or along the edges (or in the middle) of articles on media sites. They do not interrupt the experience, but they’re typically labeled as advertisements in some way. These types of ads generally provide a better experience for visitors, as they do not physically block visitors from interacting with the page’s content.

Advertisers often leverage retargeting in their inline ads, relying on a person’s past website visit behavior to deliver more relevant content. But advertisers often use limited data to target these ads, resulting in less-than-relevant experiences. Using more detailed behavioral data to understand what a person was truly engaged with results in more appropriate personalization and more effective retargeting.

Opt-in Email

Since a person has to provide his email address to receive opt-in emails, this format can be considered a seamless rather than an interruptive experience. There are three key types of opt-in emails: transactional emails (sent after a person takes an action, such as placing an order or subscribing to a newsletter), triggered emails (sent to encourage a person to complete or finish completing an action), and ongoing emails (sent as an ongoing basis to opt-in subscribers such as retail promotions or B2B nurture emails). With each of these types of emails, marketers can leverage all that they know about a person from any channel to ensure the message is as relevant as possible.

As with interruptive formats, seamless formats can be used both on websites and within apps. Seamless format types appear to be a part of the page itself, although they’re actually delivered through a personalization platform by inserting, replacing, hiding or modifying content. Visitors should not be able to realize that what they’re seeing is personalized: the content should always blend into the existing page and never flicker.

The two main types of seamless personalization are in-page edits and inline content. While they are very similar, there is a distinct difference.

  • In-Page Edits: In-page edits refer to any changes made to existing hard-coded content or text on a page—whether that content is modified or hidden completely. This allows you to make subtle yet impactful changes to your website to appeal to different visitors and make them feel that your website is intuitively relevant to them.
  • Inline Content: While in-page edits allow you to edit or hide content that is hard-coded on a page, inline content enables you to dynamically add full sections of content to a page. In most cases, visitors will not notice that any personalization is occurring or that a new section has been added; the content blends in. Essentially, inline content provides a seamless way to display information to visitors within the context and construct of the page.

There are numerous applications for in-page edits and inline content.

Picking Formats

Of all the formats available, which is the “correct” one to choose? There is, of course, no right answer to the question. Different messages will lend themselves better to different formats, and there will be many occasions where you will have to make a judgment about which format best fits the situation, your brand and your customers’ expectations. That is why A/B testing is so critical.

Broadly, however, it’s important to note that seamless experiences allow you to do more with personalization. It’s not a good idea, for example, to personalize your website using only pop-ups. Using in-page and inline content, you can subtly tailor the full site experience to each individual. That means taking full advantage of machine-learning algorithms and of all of the data sources you have available to you. You can use these resources to provide recommendations for products, brands, content and categories; to personalize list sorting; to dynamically modify site navigation; and to otherwise provide well-rounded and fully personalized experiences. You can’t do all of that with just interruptive experiences.

To learn more about these types of experiences, as well as other aspects of personalization, download our full-length book, One-to-One Personalization in the Age of Machine Learning, for free on our website.