Customers expect increasingly personalized Web experiences

Now that customers are accustomed to more tailored digital experiences, mobile digital experiences, companies must find the best ways to deliver personalized Web content that keeps their audiences engaged.

Customers have become more discriminating about what they're reading and buying on the Web. That's just a reality that companies now have to deal with.

But as they have raised the bar on the content part of the digital content equation, companies have to rely even more on technology to meet those needs. Customers are now accustomed to more personalized content and content-enabled experiences that can travel with them on smartphones and tablets. In 2015, the requirements for content to adapt to mobility and create ever more personalized experiences will only intensify.

Here's why.

Prospects for enterprise mobility

If there was ever any doubt, 2014 was the year when companies woke up to the prospects for enterprise mobility. BlackBerrys for corporate email are out, smartphones and tablets for mobilizing work are in, and business executives are struggling to profit from this transformation.

The mobile app gap. Despite the promise, there's a mobile app gap. IDC reported last May that 61% of Fortune 1000 companies have built three or fewer mobile applications while Gartner estimates that 20 million enterprise mobile apps will be built by 2018. Hand coding apps in Objective-C for iOS devices and JavaScript for Android is costly and time-consuming. There has to be a better way.

To fill this gap, the race to deliver mobile application development platforms -- what Forrester terms "low-code platforms" -- accelerated last year. Developers should only need to build mobile apps once and have them run on multiple mobile platforms (currently iOS and Android, and with a challenger from Microsoft or Blackberry always a possibility). Business analysts and other knowledgeable end users should be able to tweak these apps to enhance the experiences without professional programmer support. But the devil is in the details and in the ability to tune connections to back-end services – both running in the cloud and accessible through network connections.

Back-end connections. In 2014, we saw a refinement of these back-end connections and a realization of what many of the underlying technical issues actually are. Responsive Web design accommodates the needs of most publishers: Content that's produced for full-screen Web browsers also looks good on small-screen mobile devices.

Adapting the digital experiences to accommodate Mobile workers as they do their jobs is another matter. There is a need for expressive metadata and well-defined APIs for linking back-end services with on-device mobile experiences. The jury is still out about which approaches and what content technologies are required to win.

The Apple-IBM partnership. There is a bellwether at the top end of the market to chart a process-centric roadmap. Last July, IBM and Apple announced their partnership to develop and deliver mobile solutions that accelerate business performance.

By December, the two firms launched their first tranche of mobile apps, featuring solutions in travel, financial services, government and retail. Imagine flight attendants rebooking passengers who are likely to miss their connections while their delayed flights are in the air; sales assistants offering personalized tips to shoppers who are in stores and browsing display racks; financial advisors modeling new portfolio recommendations while meeting clients in their homes. Spiffy iPad- and iPhone-powered apps, as well as smart connections to back-end services that expedite particular business processes, are needed (and are being delivered). Firms of all sizes should take note and describe their customer journeys for mobilizing their own process-centric experiences.

Pay attention to mobile security. This problem is only going to get bigger this year. From my perspective, the most innovative solution in 2014 was Apple Pay. Together, Touch ID -- a fingerprint identity sensor in the latest iPhones and iPads -- and near-field communications (NFC) capabilities allow users to simply hold their phones against an in-store reader, tap the fingerprint sensor to confirm their identities, and cha-ching. Behind the scenes, smartphones generate a unique token to the payment processor to complete transactions.

Now imagine how this scenario might play out within the enterprise. As a researcher, I can use my iPhone as a personal badge to swipe entry into a secure facility. There's no need to carry a company-issued plastic card in my wallet. As a sales person, I can access confidential discounting information from my iPad and update my lead pipeline while in the field. There's no need to be tethered to fixed places. Each app generates unique tokens to reinforce IT security.

I suspect that we'll be seeing these kind of mobile apps once Apple makes the Touch ID application programming interfaces (APIs) available to iOS developers. I wouldn't be surprised if the Apple-IBM partnership helps to move the needle on adding fingerprint authentication to mobile enterprise apps sometime next year.

Prospects for personalization

Personalization was another big trend of 2014. Of course this has been a focal point for Web development since Amazon's launch in 1995. Over the years we've learned that doing personalization right takes time and is hard. There's a virtuous circle between creating and managing content and targeting results -- matching what website owners have (and produce as content) with what their customers need and want to complete tasks within business processes.

Of course, there is always the possibility of the "ick factor" from too much personalization -- when a website knows too much about me or is personalizing content about things I no longer care about. (My favorite is when I finally buy a big-ticket item like a dishwasher, I continue to get customized content about various products and brands for the next couple of weeks.) Good personalization not only aggregates personal facts from disparate data sources, but also includes an awareness of context. Simple rules-based systems lead to dumb results.

Like other aspects of the digital revolution, personalization provides the tools for prospective benefits at affordable costs. Often the cost/benefits tradeoffs are missing from the personalization equation. As consumers in B2C experiences, we need to be able to control how much we reveal about ourselves and what benefits we receive in return. Wearing our professional hats in B2B and B2E scenarios, we must align personalized business experiences with operational goals and work-specific tasks.

Lingering just beneath the surface is the question of balance. When are we revealing too much information and receiving too few benefits in return? Yes, both privacy and security are concerns -- and they too must be weighed within the personalization mix.

A renewed emphasis on metrics. Last year brought a renewed emphasis on metrics to measure and monitor how content is delivered to customers. Seeking to respond to the personalization challenge for digital marketing, principal Web content management (WCM) vendors are adding new customer data collection and analytics capabilities. 

Thus Adobe kicked things off in January, 2014 by announcing the integration of Adobe Experience Manager, its core WCM platform, with Adobe Campaign, an analytics tool for building personalized experiences based on customers' habits and preferences. Sitecore followed suit in May by unveiling its Experience Database (xDB), seeking to provide a single source of customer data across multiple delivery channels. (Sitecore is building xDB in partnership with MongoDB, a big data database.) Within the Drupal community, Acquia rounded out the year by introducing its Lift ContextDB in November, a cloud-powered database for collecting data about customer engagements to personalize content delivery.

Segmentation drives personalization. In part, personalization is a misnomer. From a business perspective, marketers are actually concerned with customer segmentation, where groups of people who exhibit common behaviors about one thing might also be interested in something else. For digital experiences, there can be many small segments and many if-then-else relationships. Better metrics across multiple delivery channels go hand in hand with more sophisticated market segmentation and more precise content delivery.

We should see the continuing evolution of personalized content delivery in 2015. Website owners now have many more ways to measure things -- with big data analytics they can more easily track multichannel experiences across websites and mobile devices alike. But this begs the question of what they need to measure and track in the first place.

Needed are new segmentation models and new descriptions about the ways in which customers consume content. Traditionally, segmentation focuses on fixed categories -- gender, education, occupation, purchase patterns, lifestyles, hobbies and professional interests, to name but a few. It's easy to describe (and calculate) relationships with predefined demographics.

Missing from the mix are the dynamics of customers' journeys. Segmentation can seem flat and unhelpful when it does not capture context. In fact, segmentation shifts depending on the stages of the journeys. Next-generation segmentation will include capabilities for capturing contextual clues and connecting the signposts along the customers' journeys.

All in all, content targeting (and personalization) is going to become ever more important this year. To succeed and deliver the expected customer experiences, personalized content requires a credible information architecture designed to support the segmentation models. Be sure to invest in this architecture before attempting to measure it.

Back to the digital future

In 2015, businesses will be inundated with ever more digital experiences. Our challenge is our attention spans and how we mobilize business processes. Even though many of us are getting better at multitasking, we are still constrained by the limits of the 24-hour day, and our abilities to work effectively, enhance productivity, and deliver profitable experiences within it. The digital revolution continues. Being part of it is going to be exciting.

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