Connecting head and heart: The new anatomy of advertising personalisation

Personalisation in the advertising industry probably began 60 years ago when Lester Wunderman first invented the idea of direct mail and the concept of targeting messaging to individual consumers.

It took the rest of the industry a few years to catch up but catch up it did and so began half century of mailboxes piled high with “personal offers” addressed to you, or similar(ish) to you, or someone who lived in your house three moves ago.

While it was understood that the more personalised the approach, the more likely it was to be read; the execution was too often poorly carried out, losing the impact for the intended consumer.

However, just as personalised advertising was approaching its half century it had the opportunity to reinvent itself with the advent of the internet. Digital advertising enabled newer, better opportunities for targeting, tailoring and personalisation. However, collectively the industry failed to treat this new toy with the appropriate respect and so consumers went from junk mail in the post to being stalked online by a product they might have idly clicked on during last week’s lunch break.

These blunt-force trauma tactics applied by the industry could be less like a friendly invitation to respond, than doorstep intimidation demanding money (or at least attention) with menaces.

Getting personalisation right is the Holy Grail of digital and as a result of conversations with clients, rarely get past social niceties before it’s brought up. Every client demands personalisation because they realise (much like the first agencies to get typists to address individual mailing labels) it can drive instant, measurable results to the bottom line, especially when sat on top of a smart e-commerce platform.

The steady move to e-commerce over the last two decades has increased the need for personalisation. Even the most traditional of companies, who may be used to selling through distributors, dealers and partners, are actively looking to incorporate e-commerce in their channel mix. However, this can be confusing to businesses relatively new to digital thinking as traditionally, the e-commerce and customer experience have been kept separate from each other.

Customer experience has taken the role of relationship builder or the “heart” of a brand, while the e-commerce function acts as the “head”, powering transactions and operations. For a truly personalised experience, head and heart need to converge and work together.

To date, the commerce experience has tended to be behind the login wall where it interacts with enterprise systems - often on an entirely different technical platform, with an entirely separate team to the front-end customer experience, which often sits under marketing’s purview. This can mean that personalisation is also disjointed with the front office employing tactics like geo-targeting or device analysis to tailor recommendations, while the back-end deploys different tools from logged-in journeys using more specific data to proactively suggest products aka The Amazon Approach.

However, adopting a truly joined-up approach requires not just lip service but substantial investment in infrastructure such digital platforms or data capability and more importantly, a true culture shift for many organisations.

Customer experience is now recognised as a journey that connects all touchpoints, meaning that personalisation needs to seamlessly span multiple channels regardless of where the customer is. As a result, the concept of “headless e-commerce” is starting to gain traction, recognising that customer experience is best handled by a unified experience platform for a more harmonious approach.

This approach recognises that the path to personalisation may begin way before a customer reaches a site. Advances in programmatic advertising can now not only crunch the analytics on visitor data before displaying an advert but can apply dynamic creative to assemble a creative execution targeted at that individual. This data can be passed onto the website on click through, replacing the outdated concept of a “landing page” as the site itself can be fully personalised for the visitor - down the product or service recommendations determined even before a customer reaches the e-commerce engine. Crucially, this can be done without using any personally identifiable data and so avoids issues around GDPR.

Once the customer reaches the logged-in experience, then the granularity of data increases exponentially and new AI (artificial intelligence) tools help to bring this information together rapidly with customer specific data such as purchase histories aligned to other sophisticated data sources. For example, ASOS can use AI to match clothing images that customers upload to similar items in their catalogue.

Some tools even combine this with external data such as local weather forecasts to tweak recommendations - imagine if ASOS can suggest an umbrella that matches the new coat you bought last week that can be delivered with a drone to your office just as the heavens open?

Now that personalisation is officially a sexagenarian perhaps it’s time to retire the old way of working and thinking to really maximise the e-commerce experience to create experiences that transcend organisational silos and enhance the customer journey.

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