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Strategy choices for content personalization with Sitecore Experience Platform

By Jonathan Bobo – Chief Technology Officer
Quels choix de stratégie pour la personnalisation de contenu avec Sitecore Experience Platform ?

Personalization has been a buzzword in the marketing technology landscape for some years now.

1. Introduction

 

Personalization has been a buzzword in the marketing technology landscape for some years now. While a wide range of tools already offer ready-to-use personalization services, there is still too little thinking in the overall process to deliver consumer-tailored contents on websites, mobile apps, emails, and globally any digital touchpoint.


Why do I need personalization? What do I expect from personalization as a brand? What would my consumers expect from a personalized experience? Those are only few of the questions that must be answered before any marketer starts looking at personalization as a performance optimization tool. Those questions make even more sense for large scale digital properties (lots of traffic, lots of contents to play with).


Sitecore Experience Profile offers the possibility to address personalization from the marketing strategy standpoint. As one key component of the Sitecore Experience Platform, this powerful personalization engine enables marketers to reflect part of their digital strategy in Sitecore via a visual interface while encapsulating most of the technology complexity behind the scene. In many cases, setting up a strategy-driven personalization could be achieved mostly via configuration in the CMS with little code development.


With this in mind, implementing personalization with Sitecore should always start with some key strategy considerations. One of the main concern should be: « What is my primary marketing objective when implementing personalization »? The whole solution may differ depending on the answer to that key question. Two different ways to address that question will be discussed here. The first approach is to look at it from a consumer expectations standpoint while the second one is more marketing goals-centric.

 

1. Promote contents based on their compatibility with the consumer expectations

 

2.1. What are the consumers interested in?

 

Delivering digital contents organized by topic is one fundamental principle that has been followed for decades now. There is nothing new about splitting contents in different categories and arrange those nicely in a navigation menu. While this is a best practice, it still comes with some limitations. One of them is obviously that consumers often have to browse themselves through the different sections to discover contents they may like.


Another one is that the way contents are visually organized on a website for example is more driven by the website global content strategy rather than the different type of consumers interest. While those 2 can sometimes match, it is very common that websites would implement at least one secondary categorization method. This can come to life as tags or topics that sometimes are visible (at the bottom of a content mostly). We all have already run into those « Read more about: topic-1, topic-2 » at the bottom of an article where topic-1 and topic-2 are clickable links that lead to a listing page that normally is not reachable via the regular navigation. Huffingtonpost.com is one good example.


With that in mind, let’s now look at what could be considered as a good basis to define consumer interest:

  • Category of the contents they consume
  • Cross-category tags assigned the contents they consume
  • Any potential explicit consumer data captured (this is an obvious one)

 

2.2. How does it come to life with Sitecore?

 

So, let’s consider a digital property for which the primary objective of personalization is to serve each consumer with the contents they may be the most interested in. What Sitecore offers is an easy way to define multiple interest profiles that can be computed against each consumer as they browse through contents. Then, it becomes simple to promote contents based on their compatibility with the consumer’s expectations.
These are the steps that should be followed:

  • Identify your content strategy key audience interests
  • Define interest profiles in Sitecore Marketing Control Panel that match your content strategy audience interest. Using the flexibility of profile keys, profile cards and profile patterns, this step could either be very basic or more advanced (using predefined personas mixing multiple centers of interest)
  • Associate interest profiles with contents. Again, this could either be done simply by selecting predefined profiles or manually assigning values. While it is not necessary to tag all contents, it is highly recommended to tag all major traffic-driving contents
  • Identify best areas to display personalized contents. This is more a consumer experience decision. Depending on where the personalized contents appear in the consumer journey, the context may differ, then there may be different expectations from personalization
  • Configure personalization rules to pick contents based on interest tags that best match the consumer behavior profiles

 

With this approach, the users are exposed to contents that make sense for them without having to find them. As this does not require additional coding on top of Sitecore Experience Platform, it is a relatively quick win for marketers. However, this relies strongly on the quality of the content tagging. A couple of things could go wrong. The application of interest profiles to contents could be done poorly. The contents selected to be tagged may not be the most relevant ones. The interest profiles definition itself could be challenging if the content strategy is not clear enough. There is only one key principle to follow here: keep it simple. Usually, defining very few profiles with very few possible values (3-4) is the best way to go. The easiest it is to define, the easiest it will be to decide which tag to apply to contents, and the more reliable the consumer behavior profiles will be.

 

3. Promote contents based on their proven ability to drive marketing goals

 

3.1. How to influence consumers towards key marketing actions?

 


While the first approach provides a better experience to users, it does not necessarily bring any optimization from the business perspective. What if marketers want leverage personalization to optimize efficiency or ROI? Sitecore also makes this simple with the use of marketing goals and contents value per visit.
In the case of a website for example, a brand would usually have few key objectives for their visitors. A cart checkout, a feedback post, a brochure download, a lead capture, those are few quite common marketing goals for a website. One website would in general combine a few of those with other goals. Then, the user experience would be designed in order to optimize the number of such transactions. While it is true that the user experience is a key driver of success, contents also hold a critical role when it comes to influencing consumers. Dedicating significant time and resources for content strategy and content performance analysis is already a no-brainer for marketers. Looking at how contents perform over time and continuously re-adjust content strategy is already a standard. What if it was fairly easy to address at least a part of this with automated personalization via Sitecore?

 

3.2. Content performance basic principles

 

For this second approach, let’s consider a website with a few marketing objectives such as:

  • Capture a lead via a registration form
  • Brochure request
  • Service/Product request

In this context, personalization could also be used to promote contents based on their proven ability to drive the above goals. The way to get there is to be able to identify contents that have previously played a role when a visitor performed such an action. If such contents can be identified but also if it is possible to track each occurrence of such actions, it becomes easy to figure out what contents are more often playing a role in the marketing strategy. In other words, it would be feasible to confirm how helpful each content is for the marketing strategy. These content performance principles are no news and have been applied to analytics data for years.


This whole process could even be more accurate if we now consider that a product request is a more engaging action compared to a brochure request. If we are effectively able to define how much we care for each of those actions from a marketing standpoint, the content performance concept could be brought to a higher level.

 

3.3. Sitecore and content performance automation

 

The way content performance is usually leveraged is iterative.

 

  • Content strategy setup
  • Content performance analysis
  • Content strategy update
  • Content performance analysis
  • Content strategy update

 

The same principle could be applied via Sitecore in a more automated and systematic way. Sitecore enables marketers to reflect their marketing goals into the system. Then, by technically linking each goal to different user actions (could be as simple as the click on a link), the goals would automatically be triggered as consumers perform actions. The interesting part starts with the content scoring process. To put it simply, each piece of content that contributed to a goal related user action would be rewarded with engagement value points. Those engagement value points will help confirming which contents are the more involved in the goal related actions.


Capitalizing on its easy way to compare contents performance, Sitecore offers the possibility to define personalization rules that would look at content performance as one way to decide which contents to display. Typically, it would be easy to specify the following rule: on homepage, always promote the best performing content of the site in a banner. The great benefit with Sitecore is that this whole process happens in real time. Thus, content performance is continuously re-assessed as visitors consume contents and reach goals. As a result, personalization rules that are performance based would always be relevant based on the immediate reality. That best performing content on the homepage banner could vary from one day to another with no human intervention only based on all visitors' behaviors.

 

3.4. What is needed to make it work?

 

  • Identify your key marketing goals
  • Classify your goals and assign priorities to each of them
  • Assign values to each goal based on their impact on your business. This will dictate how many points should be assigned to each content after a goal completion
  • Define goals in Sitecore Marketing Control Panel that match your marketing goals for the website. Each goal will be assigned with a score aligned with the strategy
  • Attach goals to all needed website actions. This step could be straightforward in many cases, ex: target the click on specific links. Some coding may be required to trigger the goals when complex conditions need to be met
  • Identify best areas to display personalized contents.
  • Configure personalization rules to pick contents based on their performance score

 

The key for the success of this implementation is the marketing goals definition. The way each goal is compared to each other will have a direct impact on the content scoring. Here again, keeping things simple for a first run is highly recommended. It is better to have only few well defined and prioritized goals rather than many of them with unclear priority setup.


There is one fundamental difference between this option and the profile based option. With this option, the content selection is fully driven by consumers activity. There is no need to take assumptions upfront in terms of which content should be displayed to which audience. Of course, that takes away some level of control from the brand. But if the content being displayed is the one that has the highest chances to convert the visitor, why would one want to show something else?
Now of course this approach comes with few watch outs.

  • The contents used for personalization should also be promoted outside personalization areas, with no personalization mechanics. All contents should have more or less equal chances to trigger goals, otherwise, the whole content scoring principle is distorted. With the Sitecore SBOS Xccelerators, it still is possible to mitigate the risk of always promoting the same contents. It is very easy to configure that the best performing content should be shown only 80% of the time for example. Then the remaining 20% could alternate between most recent and random contents eventually
  • The content performance driven recommendation seems to be more relevant with scale while the profile based principle could easily be applied even with only few contents to recommend

 

Of course, the next question would be: why should we chose between profiling and content performance? Of course, there is no such limitation. Mixing both principles, it is not too complex to promote contents based on their proven ability to drive marketing goals for previous consumers that have the same expectations. It could be achieved either with a bit of coding or with Machine Learning.


While we are yet to discover what Sitecore 9’s Cortex has to offer, there are numerous options already there to couple Sitecore personalization with Machine Learning. Microsoft Cognitive Services is one. But if we start dealing with Machine Learning, the possibilities are even bigger. It is typically fairly simple to promote contents that performed the best for consumer who came through the same traffic source...

 

Image from Marketingland.com