Customization? Personalization? What's The Difference?

Marketers want to personalize their content.

Not only is it a trending concept (see just about any “marketing prediction” article) – but it also sounds really good. Who doesn’t want to personalize, right?

However, most of us who say we’re personalizing actually aren’t.

And many marketers are spending a lot of time and budget on customization, which seems a bit like personalization… but isn’t.

Customization: what it is, and why it’s (potentially) dangerous

Have you ever been to a website and seen your logo on it?

Or found yourself on the receiving end of a very eager chatbot asking about how things are at your company?

Or ended up on a landing page that was convinced you were in New York, all the while you’re browsing the web from 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean?

This happens to me pretty regularly, and I know I’m not the only one.

By using products like Clearbit and other “reverse IP” tools, cutting-edge marketers are using the data they give (mainly, a best guess about who somebody is or the company they work for, assumed entirely based on their computer’s IP address) to change content.

Additionally, IP-based geolocation has been used for years to try to guess where someone is connecting from.

While this technology has been getting better, it’s still not perfect – especially if you’re on a mobile connection, where the IP address of your mobile might be pretty far away from where you are right now.

(And don’t get me started about all the times I’ve been on a cafe’s WiFi, and been told that I work at a company I knew zilch about and had never heard of.)

If you’re customizing content by guessing about who someone is or where they are, you run the risk of false positives. Seeing “London” when you’re not in London is far worse than seeing nothing specific at all.

Customization is taking data that we have about somebody – which is sometimes, as explained above, guessed – and incorporating that data into your content.

In it’s most basic form, it’s “Hello {{ FIRST_NAME }}, …” at the top of an email.

But it can also get, well – creepy. Especially if you know that you’ve never told anyone that you work for Google and live in San Francisco.

And it’s just downright weird if you see a company you’ve never heard of or a city you’re thousands of miles away from.

What personalization accomplishes, and why customization misses the mark

Personalization done right is the reshaping of a narrative based on either concrete data that someone shared with you or behavioral cues.

These include things like:

  • Survey response data
  • An individual’s purchase history
  • The referring ad (if someone clicks on an ad, they’re “agreeing” with both the targeting and pain point of the ad)
  • The original landing page (you can tell quite a bit about someone if they arrive from Google to your article titled “How Do I Get A Raise?”)

And at RightMessage, we encourage our customers to use data above not to spit out “Hello Brennan, you have bought X, Y and Z from us. You live in Virginia.”…

But, rather, to reshape the narrative.

If I were trying to sell you something in person, I wouldn’t keep parroting facts I knew about you.

Instead, I’d be thinking of how I could use those facts to make what I have to offer more obvious and necessary.

What the people who are on your website and reading your emails want to know is: “How does this help me? And is it worth my time to keep reading this?”

Effective personalization includes:

  • Describing how your product/service directly helps someone based on the need that they told you about
  • Explains to repeat customers how a new product of yours differs from the one they already purchased
  • Uses industry-specific language and shows case studies and other forms of social proof from customers who are similiar to them
  • Promoting different paid products or free products (i.e. lead magnets) to different people, depending on what they need or what they’ve already bought from you

Truthfully, it can be difficult to think about how this headline or that testimonial should change depending on what you know about someone. Which is why customization – injecting a name or presumed location – is what most marketers are doing instead (and calling it personalization.)

Ask yourself: Does this actually help someone?

When thinking through how you’ll change content for different people, always consider:

“How am I helping people know that they’re at the right place?”

Are you making it clear that you’re taking into account their needs, and rephrashing how you pitch or describe what you offer accordingly?

Are you aware of who they are, and showing them that you understand them and their unique needs (empathy) and have helped others like them?

Are you taking into account how aware someone is of you, your brand, or even the problem you address – and offering different next steps?

Are you doing everything you can to deliver a bespoke experience that is mirroring exactly what you’d be doing if you were talking with someone one-on-one?

Personalization is an age old technique. “People don’t want to really need to think too hard.” If you can show someone exactly what they need next, and why they need it, and make what you’ve got more obvious and intuitive, then they’re more likely to take that next step with you.

But if you’re speaking generically, and people are needing to reconcile what you’re saying with what they actually need, then you’re going to lose more people.

It’s really as simple as that.

Are you truly personalizing your content to deliver a better user experience?

Or are you just telling people what they already know (or potentially showing false information, which is actually worse)?