Personalization is not Technology: Using Web Personalization to Promote your Business Goal

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“Web personalization is a strategy, a marketing tool, and an art.”

Personalization, properly implemented, brings focus to your message and delivers an experience that is visitor-oriented, quick to inform, and relevant. Personalization, poorly implemented, complicates the user experience and orphans content.

If you are a web strategist, designer, or content manager, you are undoubtedly familiar with the value of web personalization. For years, we’ve been working to ease the complexity associated with authoring, delivering, and consuming rich, dynamic content via browser-based applications. Introducing more content, and varying it routinely, may make your site fresh, but it can also have a negative impact on your overall message. When does freshness become noise? And how can personalization cut through the clutter?

What is web personalization?

Web personalization is a strategy, a marketing tool, and an art. Personalization requires implicitly or explicitly collecting visitor information and leveraging that knowledge in your content delivery framework to manipulate what information you present to your users and how you present it.

Correctly executed, personalization of the visitor’s experience makes his time on your site, or in your application, more productive and engaging. Personalization can also be valuable to you and your organization, because it drives desired business results such as increasing visitor response or promoting customer retention.

Unfortunately, personalization for its own sake has the potential to increase the complexity of your site interface and drive inefficiency into your architecture. It might even compromise the effectiveness of your marketing message or, worse, impair the user’s experience. Few businesses are willing to sacrifice their core message for the sake of a few trick web pages.

Contrary to popular belief, personalization doesn’t have to take the form of customized content portals, popularized in the mid-to-late 90s by and My Yahoo!. Nor does personalization require expensive applications or live-in consultants. Personalization can be as blatant or as understated as you want it to be.

It’s a tired old yarn, but if you hope to implement a web personalization strategy, the first and most important step is to develop and mature your business goals and requirements. It is important to detail what it is you hope to do and, from that knowledge, develop an understanding of how you get from an idea to implementation. You might be surprised to discover that it won’t require most of next year’s budget to achieve worthwhile results.

What makes personalization successful?

Too frequently, personalization initiatives die on the white board. It can seem a daunting task when development teams gather to consider technical and business requirements (such as changes to architecture, user profile storage and analysis, and content management). Analysis paralysis kills personalization projects early and often because teams overreach.

So what’s the key to successfully implementing personalization initiatives? Start small and pick achievable goals that integrate well into your existing presentation framework. Think of personalization as a way to enable your business plan. Over time, with successful implementations, it can become an enabling technology; a component of your overall marketing strategy, your communication message, even branding.

However, in order to accomplish any level of personalization, whether it’s for your internet, intranet, or extranet site, you need:

  • A high-level driver, owner, and/or sponsor
    This should be someone in management, executive management, or at the C-level who has ownership of the “bottom-line” results.
  • Measurable business goals
    Your personalization initiatives must be measured against practical and relevant business metrics.
  • Long-term commitment
    This is an iterative process; some phases will be very successful, others will be less so.

Most importantly, keep the process simple. Stay focused on the business goals, tackle manageable projects, measure the success or failure of your changes, and learn from your mistakes.

What are your business requirements?

Think through this carefully. What are your business goals? How can you turn these business goals into personalization business requirements?

By giving prudent forethought to maturing your intention and measuring your results, you can keep the process well focused. For example, if your goal is to increase sales revenue, you might use personalization to better transition anonymous internet visitors to sales leads. Or, if your goal is to decrease software support costs, you might use personalization to promote online support tools for an application or service that you know a specific user is interested in.

How are you going to do it?

Once the business requirements are well defined and understood, refine and elaborate upon them until you can develop use cases to support the end goal. I am using the software engineer’s definition of “use case” here, focused on describing the precise behavior of the application, not necessarily the user interface.

For example, if your goal is to collect more email addresses from job-seeking internet site users, your use case might explain how you intend to identify visitors as job-seekers, how you will prompt them for their email addresses, and how they will be rewarded for providing the information. (Remember, these are your customers. Don’t force them to provide data. And when they do provide personal details, offer them tangible rewards for doing so.)

User interface design, when implementing personalization initiatives, remains an important part of the design process. In fact, careful user interface design may be more important than ever. Don’t allow your modified presentation framework to become a barrier to end users, compromising your message or intentions. Keep in mind:

  • This is a partnership
    You are engaging in a partnership with your visitor, using what they share with you, explicitly and implicitly, to facilitate a more productive relationship. They need to trust you and you need to honor their wishes. These objectives may manifest themselves in the user interface.
  • The message is still key
    When choosing to display or hide content from your site visitor based on a personalization initiative, you need to fully understand the ramifications of such an effort. Will this adaptation of the user interface render some content inaccessible, or orphaned? Will this adaptation of the user interface alter the presentation such that the overall integrity of your site is compromised?

If business goals describe what you want, business requirements describe what you need to do, and use cases describe how you plan on doing it.

Who is your visitor?

From an understanding of your business requirements, develop a visitor profile definition and visitor segments.

A visitor profile is a collection of attributes that you’ll need to either maintain or derive in order to support personalization. Implicit profile attributes can be derived from browsing patterns, cookies, and other sources. Explicit profile attributes come from online questionnaires, registration forms, integrated CRM or sales force automation tools, and legacy or existing databases. In short, explicit profile attributes come from customer responses, while implicit profile attributes come from watching or interpreting customer behavior.

A visitor segment is a collection of users with matching profiles. Certainly, a loose definition of target segments may develop as business requirements mature. After all, these are the people you strive to reach with your personalization initiatives. Visitor segments may be very broad or very confined in scope. However, once a visitor’s attributes and the mechanics of maintaining and collecting visitor profile data are known, rules can be developed that formally define segments.

Sample visitor segments might include registered site users who have not purchased any services, customers who have not purchased a service in more than 12 months or, simply, investors.

How you collect and store this information is a sensitive and timely topic. In many parts of the world, and among some segments of the internet community, cookies are despised. Take this into account when determining what data you have access to and how you leverage it.

How do you measure success?

How will you measure the success or failure of your personalization business requirements once they become technical deliverables? It is important to measure success or failure in any personalization exercise. Failures need to be eliminated before they cause further trouble. Successes can be used to drive further financial, time, and personnel investment.

As you determine your business goals, requirements, and use cases, keep in mind what sort of metrics you can collect before and after implementing any changes to your user interfaces. Also, try to determine how this data should change as a result of personalization.

Case Study: Improving the Effectiveness of an Internet Site for Human Resources

What is the business requirement?

  • To enable Human Resources to increase their pool of candidates, and improve their ability to leverage information about existing candidates using an existing internet site.

How are we going to meet the requirement (what are our use cases)?

  • The web delivery application will detect first-time website visitors browsing the job openings page. These visitors will be prompted for their email address and given an opportunity to register for job opening announcements by email.
  • The web delivery application will detect returning website visitors interested in job openings, offering them a chance to register for email announcements (see above) and a chance to win a new laptop computer. Visitors who register to win the laptop will provide their name, address, email address (if unknown to us), and phone number.
  • When a known visitor submits a resume for a job opening, additional profile information will be collected. Known attributes (name, address, email address) will be populated from the profile.
  • All visitor profile information collected will be stored in an internally accessible database and used by the HR department to promote job openings and career fairs that might be of interest to the candidate.

Who is the visitor/What is the visitor profile?

The following information can be collected and associated with the user in question:

  • Number of site visits
  • Name
  • Address
  • Email address
  • Phone number
  • Resume
  • Interest in job openings (implicitly derived—based on browsing patterns)

How will we measure success?

  • By reduced recruitment costs due to lessening the time it takes to fill job openings and eliminating recruiting expenses.
  • By an increased number of candidates hired via website.


Personalization may be tough to define and hard to measure, but it doesn’t require a rocket scientist or piles of cash to accomplish. As with most business initiatives, developing that first business requirement and making the first commitment, right or wrong, is the hardest step.

The software market is flooded with companies ready to sell you an off-the-shelf, shrink-wrapped personalization solution. Unfortunately, what buyers don’t often realize until it’s too late is that personalization isn’t a plug-and-play solution.

Know your goals and stay focused on long-term improvements by following these steps:

  1. Define your business goals.
  2. Convert your business goals into personalization business requirements.
  3. Convert your business requirements into use cases.
  4. Define the user profile and formally define the user segment(s).
  5. Determine which metrics you will use to evaluate the initiative.
  6. Implement.
  7. Repeat.

Personalization requires analysis of your goals and the development of business requirements, use cases, and metrics. Once these are fully understood, you may find that your personalization strategy doesn’t require substantial augmentation of your application environment. If you do find that the integration of a personalization tool is necessary, with this knowledge, you’ll be able to better analyze and judge the offerings.

Christian Ricci is a consultant, application developer, web designer, and project manager with over 11 years of experience in software design and development, network and server administration, and software project management and engineering. As a Senior Solutions Architect for Saillant Consulting Group, Chris has led portal, content, and document management projects for Qualcomm, Intermountain Health Care, J.D. Edwards, EAS, and the Denver Post.



  1. Using website personalization is not as easy as people think, at least for the average online businessman of search to upraise its online sales and get higher conversion rates. Of course using implicit content personalization can help making better marketing decisions and help website owners elevate user experience and give a personal touch to every visitor. But most companies will need to take someone who will analyze the data and create content for the “personalized” content engine, build segments and create actions. I think that maybe those tools came to early, and the many online businessmen are not ready for this technology yet. Maybe a good implementation will solve the problem. I have been using real-time content personalization tools with great success, but I have years of experience. The technology and innovations are welcomed, and I will be glad to see more products in 2011, But for most of us, this is too much to handle. That’s the reason why many companies are hiring web analytics consultant to do that job.

    Best regards.

  2. Thanks Christian for the article, it’s been awhile since I read an article about web personalization – especially web personalization. As in your article, it’s really hard to implement out-of-the box personalization technology without carefully defining your business requirements to use cases and user profiles. Once solutions that worked on one particular industry will not work on the other.

    Applying personalization also become espeically tricky on retail websites and web applications. Personalization in retail websites have to satisfy both the retailer and customers.
    For e.g. retailers want to promote the latest electronic gadgets to increase their profit, but at the same time provide a way to dispaly the right products that customers are looking for.

    So taking retail website as an example, when you apply a personalization technology to provide better user experience for the customers, think about personalization can be easily managed by the retailers and provide the right content for the customers.


  3. Ji,

    Thanks for the comments. You make a good point about the complexity associated with personalization of customer interfaces. Retail website personalization requires carefully balancing what implicitly (versus explicitly) derived data you leverage in manipulating the experience.

    We’ve all heard stories of Amazon’s early (an ongoing) work in this area — Your purchase of a baby shower gift two years ago doesn’t necessarily imply that you have a child. Many factors are involved — perhaps one approach would be to give greater value to explicitly collected information or “scoping” implicitly collected data.

    Each app is different. And many solutions require revision as time and consumer patterns vary.

    Thanks again,


  4. I was a UI designer for a leading vendor of an enterprise-level ‘personalization’ platform, back when that was the rage. I never felt that any customers even scratched the surface of what the platform was capable of.

    I strongly believe that this was due to their inability to figure out exactly “what to do” rather than their inability to do it. In many cases, these businesses were probably overspending on technology and underspending on design.

  5. I agree with max that lot of businesses do not have very good understanding of applying web personalization technology to increase their customer’s user experence……I also worked at a software company that provided personalization technology platform (collaborative filtering), and underspending on design from customer’s side was always a problem.
    In side note, I rememer back then, it was hard to find research and papers that focused on personalziation and UI design…..although there are some good articles on published on recommender systems.

    check out Rashmi Sinha’s paper:


  6. Max,

    If analysis paralysis doesn’t kill a project, it certainly has the potential to kill its momentum. I think you can often attribute an organization’s hesitancy to make “stake-in-the-ground” decisions on raised expectations when expensive software (and a costly implementation) is involved.

    I also realize that many companies treat guidance by consultants and vendors with caution — finding ways to overcome this kind of barrier is important but frequently difficult.


    Thanks for contributing the URL.

  7. I think the modest approach to personalization is a good tact both for individual organizations and the concept as a whole. Nice article. I think it would have been helpful to have additional case studies or examples to really illustrate how personalization can be applicable in small contexts, pervasively, and in different ways that many of us assume.

  8. My companies goal is to provide a personalization experience that collects information based on either web usage habits or life events i.e.) leave of absence, pay range, management training, retirement investments, etc…(retrieved from an HR records database), and responds to the employee with actions or content to review prior to the event. This could even be done through email. This maybe outside the scope of traditional web personalization however.

    I think this is a good articule to help define goals and issues to consider before considering a solution.

  9. Mark,

    Thanks for the comments. Personalization (PZN) in intranet sites, particularly Human Resource-type, service sites can be a very valuable tool. You want to focus on the natural progression (stages) and cycles of an employee’s experience.

    Stages: Employees start out as “new hires”, become “mentors”, eventually “pre-retiree” and “retiree”. That’s a super simple progression; you can probably come up with other stages (for example optional stages like maternity leave or sabatical). For each stage, what an employee requires of an HR site may change. The new hire needs help filling out their benefits forms, may need keys to the office, a badge, etc. The employee about to retire needs help designating a successor, transitioning their 401K or pension plan, understanding their stock (option) plan, etc.

    Cycles: Over the course of a year, employees need different things from your HR site. At the beginning of the year they may need help compiling their goals and filling out self/peer-reviews. At the end of the year, they may require information for open-enrollment/benefit submissions. Just before summer, they may need help filling out vacation requests.

    The information you need to implement this type of PZN may be implicitely or explicitely derived… for example, you may know (or have access to) each employee’s hire date, recent promotions, etc. So, you know how long they’ve been with the company, if they are a recent management promotion, whatever. You’ve also got a corporate calendar…

    Mix this with explicitely provided data — prompt the user mid-summer about whether they plan on altering their healthcare benefits this year… if yes, you may start introducing healthcare service documentation to the site, send out reminder emails, etc.

    Carefully applied PZN can take into account the stage of an employee and natural cycles in their job, adapting the user interface, and presented content, to the set of potential tasks.

    ….but, make sure you don’t place boundaries around the information your employees need to do their work and feel “taken care of” as members of your organization — PZN, especially if it alters navigation or visible links, can hide or orphan content making the experience confusing.


  10. I recommend reading two following books, they are packed with good information and will help start people new to personalization/recommendation technology systems (plus you don’t need PHD in computer science or psychology to read these):

    1. Designing Information Spaces: The Social Navigation Approach
    (expensive book, but if you are familiar with sites like “friendster” or “tribe”, this book will provide good ideas/tips. Pay special attention to chapter on collaborative filtering).

    2. Word of Mouse: The Marketing Power of Collaborative Filtering
    (written by guys who started/associated with a company called Netperceptions and University of Minnesota Group Lens project guys, easy to read book on marrying personalization technologhy for the the real world…it’s about time they wrote this.)

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