What The Hell Is Individualization And Why Does It Matter?

For years marketers have talked about getting to know your customer. The discussions have come in many forms and there have been too many trees destroyed in printed white papers covering the topic. During that time, the term “personalization” became a much used and referenced element of knowing your customer strategy, especially in eCommerce. Over the last few years, that word has been more than just used, it has been abused, extended, redefined, broadened and – at this point made almost undefinable or even worse omni definable (yes I just made that up, but it can mean almost anything).

The original personalization concept was valid and still is. It was originally meant to describe a process that would make something tailored to an individual, one specific person. Today it is used for solutions that are obviously segment based and that respond to large buckets of site visitors (e.g. people who came from Texas). As a marketer, I try to avoid using this personalization word because to me, it defines a bucket of solutions and expressions that don’t really fit with the original meaning and are used hyperbolically.

In an effort to define as succinctly as possible this original version of personalization (yes I just used it but it is for the purposes of clarity) we have started using the term individualization (we didn’t invent this term, analysts like Forrester’s Tony Costa have been using it for at least a year). To me, this best captures the idea in commerce that a site responds to an individual and their preferences individually. Individualization isn’t a solution that sets up broad groups and says anyone who bought black shoes should see this, or everyone from Florida should see that. To me, those are responsive CMS solutions that use segmentation or group people into a “like” or “similar” group. Once a visitor is in a group, true individualization goes out the window.

Individualization is about capturing and responding to the individual intent of a visitor in real time.

It doesn’t use yesterday’s data to present things to someone who is engaging in real time with your site. It is about listening to the behavior of the shopper now and presenting relevant responses immediately. In eCommerce it means making sure you leverage the items the visitor is clicking on to help refine their shopping experience so they are stuck in endless aisles of merchandise that are largely irrelevant to the shopper. By using the attributes of what the shopper is clicking on, you can see patterns and help present the most on-target items. This can be done through individualized site search results, individualized category pages and individualized merchandising opportunities on home pages and product pages.

Why does this matter? The new digital consumer has grown to expect smart experiences and they recognize when their experience is generic or is stereotyping them as something they aren’t. Not all women categorized as soccer moms want the same jeans despite what you see on Saturday Night Live, not all supposed urban hipsters need beard oil and flannel. That is what a lot of sites do though. They create psychographic, geographic and demographic segments and use those as ways to present things to users. People now know what it is like to get individualized treatment. Their apps on their smartphone respond to them and their environment, Netflix and Spotify help curate the movies and music they like and they have personalized news feed that are essentially individualized newspapers.

It matters to the new digital consumer, and with their expectations can either come their quick disregard for those who ignore them, or their reward with their wallets for those that get it and build that better mousetrap. Those who do it well and have a smart responsive individualization approach will get their attention. New digital consumers appreciate the respect for their time and the fact that the brand is smart and not stuck in the dark ages. Those companies that can implement and develop their individualization approach will be significantly ahead of their competition, giving them a distinct competitive advantage.

So what is your individualization strategy?

Kurt Heinemann

Kurt is Reflektion’s CMO. His resume includes CMO positions at Marketwired and Monetate. He’s also held senior executive positions at Priceline, Time Warner and Walker Digital Companies. Despite living in Yankees territory, Kurt is a die hard Tigers fan.