A personal tale of why 1:1 personalization has taken so damn long

Episerver’s recent acquisition of content personalization and analytics company Idio has me thinking of why this promise of personalization we’ve heard for about a decade is just now being realized at scale. Here’s a personal personalization story as a content creator as well as current-day interviews with Episerver colleagues.

In 2011, I started at a daily deals startup just outside of Chicago as their copywriter manager – a role that expanded and evolved ten times over as anyone who has worked at a startup can relate to. It was my mistake for many years, however, to think that’s only what the company was – a Groupon tagalong. Rather, it gave personalization the old college try and surfaced the challenges of personalization often faced by content creators, even today.

Back then, the U.S. was still in the thick of the “Great Recession” and daily deal websites and “apps” (a term used loosely by today’s standards) were a hit with budget-conscious consumers who were watching their wallet but didn’t want to sacrifice going out to eat, getting their hair done or trying new experiences. There was the other part of the daily deals game too – at least in ideal – to be introduced to new service providers you’d return to, like an oil change business, at a discounted rate.

Businesses offered their products or services for 50 percent off or more in hopes of acquiring first-time customers, a requirement to buy most deals. The problem though was “freeloaders,” a term the startup’s owner would often use for people who would go way out of their way – think an hour or two – to get products and services at deeply discounted prices only to never return. This was one of the main downfalls of daily deals from Groupon and Living Social that we looked to solve for both the business – only get actual new customers who have the potential to return – and the consumer – only get deals that are relevant to them.

Thus, “WhereYouShop” was born. The patented technology, like much of the owner’s previous patents, was ahead of its time and certainly ahead of its main competitors. People could “draw” on a map where they spent most of their time. They could also drop a pin essentially on where they lived, worked and played (told you I was a copywriter). Beyond those three pillar locations, they could add in their children’s schools, their parents’ house or anywhere they’d be most likely to visit a business. Then, the site would surface the deals that made sense to their real-world behaviors. If it seems basic now, it wasn’t really then.

“Fewer people than you think realize how rudimentary personalization was back in the day,” said Deane Barker, senior director of content management strategy at Episerver. “For a long time, it only worked if you were logged in – so it was ‘known personalization.’ I still remember standing in the Episerver office in 2010 or so, and have an architect explain this idea he had about anonymous personalization. I thought it was nutty at the time, but it eventually became Visitor Groups. That seems like forever ago.”

At WhereYouShop, the team developed proprietary personalization for an ad-tech company based on self-disclosed information – just a few years after some of the best-of-breed personalization solutions were born. It proves true time and again that people are willing to disclose information or, like today, have their information automatically used if it improves their experience. In fact, the majority both B2C shoppers and B2B decision makers think a company cares about their digital experience when the site is personalized for them and, in reverse, doesn’t care about their digital experience when it is not. This, however, is still segment based and wasn’t 1:1 personalization. The site’s content management system, for example, didn’t learn from a single customer or offer suggested deals to a single person based on previous ones they enjoyed. The majority of people welcome a company using their information if it improves their digital experience.

“I resisted personalization for a long time – I considered it a marketing hack that took focus of content creation,” said Barker. “Then someone said something that resonated with me: ‘The great content in the world doesn’t do anything if no one reads it.’ I never looked at a personalization the same way again, as it related to content.”

So, the team at this ad-tech startup tried to personalize the experience even more through what we thought we could control – content, content, content – and one reason true personalization has taken so damn long for everyone.

A few months into this startup journey, our owner told us we were going to launch a print magazine, along with a company name change, Deals Magazine. The print magazine would enable people to consume content how they wanted, online or off.

We’d have a mix of “content” and “commerce” with content being how-to articles, restaurant guides and the like and the commerce being the deals, which people could buy from the magazine or the website with a unique code or, for online shopping laggards, call us to purchase.

Having just come from an editorial role at a national magazine publisher, it was on me and our graphic designer (fast forward eight years and she helped us here at Episerver with the holiday retail report, B2C benchmark report and B2B digital experience report) to launch it from scratch with some guidance from our owner’s other magazine team, Website Magazine.

While we were all proud of the magazine, the owner thought the magazine didn’t reach our mission of only providing deals to people “where they shop” and only providing new customers to businesses based on their likelihood to become repeat customers. The one-to-many format of a traditional print magazine wouldn’t cut it even though we hadn’t even solved that problem online.

So, we created another magazine issue and personalized it to our audiences. How do you personalize print content? One magazine issue would now be seven issues based on Chicagoland’s main areas. We did this cycle several times.

With location-based issues, we’d have a better chance of living up to our mission with “rules” of if a person lives in this zip code, then they get that magazine issue. Our core content would be the same, but our deals would change based on the location. We, as a content team, couldn’t possibly keep up with any more personalization, or more like localization, outside of that.

This is where personalization goes wrong – the creative burden to content creators who simply can’t keep up with dozens or hundreds of personalization rules and the content that needs to be available to surface in real-time – offline or on.

“Uptake on rules-based personalization has always been slower than we’ve liked,” said Barker. “It’s a process and staffing issue for many organizations. As they get more content and more audiences, there’s just no way to link it all together. And this is just forward-looking recommendations. There’s no way they have the time to go backwards and update old recommendations as new content and new audiences surface.”

Deals Magazine would go on to die in the startup graveyard after a really valiant try – including acquiring more new customers in our first year of business than Groupon did in theirs; I’d go on to work at the previously mentioned Website Magazine for several years, covering companies like Episerver; and content creators everywhere would still scratch their heads for the foreseeable future of how to produce enough content to satisfy every individual that comes to their site.

Today – with Episerver’s just-announced acquisition of Idio – content creators finally have an answer. One-to-one personalization is possible at scale, without rules and without the tears of content creators wondering how to make it all work.

“To do this at scale, you just have to make the machine work for you,” said Barker. “You don’t need to surrender completely – Idio gives you options to guide and influence recommendations. So the content team deals in terms of goals and intentions, and the Idio platform delivers actionable recommendations to make that happen. It’s exciting.”

Manual and rules-based approaches to personalization do reduce the burden of irrelevant content on the end-consumer, but only by forcing content creators to take a significant and unscalable burden on themselves.

These approaches work for broad segmentation but can never enable a truly 1:1 experience according to Andrew Davies, co-founder of Idio. Under existing approaches, the unenviable personalization task list for content creators includes analyzing and classifying content in a structured way, building individual-level consumer insight, and making decisions on every potential match between end-consumer and content.

“Idio automatically understands the topics and meaning of each content item, builds a predictive profile of end-consumer preferences, and makes real-time decisions across channels to ensure each end-consumer gets an experience that has been uniquely tailored for them,” said Davies. “This automated approach tackles the content creators’ challenge directly, enabling them to serve end-consumers well – delivering 1:1 personalization at a truly global scale.”

To learn more about Episerver’s acquisition of Idio, read our full announcement or book a personalized Episerver demo.