Personalization Framework

In the age of constant bombardment with marketing messages, staying relevant to prospects and customers is not just good practice in the manual; it is a matter of survival.

personalizationIn the age of constant bombardment with marketing messages, staying relevant to prospects and customers is not just good practice in the manual; it is a matter of survival.

Recipients of marketing messages are more immune to generic offers than ever, and a relentless series of emails and we-will-follow-you-to-the-end-of-your-journey attitude literally trained them to ignore anything that even resembles commercial messages.

You want to stand out in this world of omnichannel marketing? Try to stand out by making it about “them,” not about “you.”


Personalization is not just another buzzword that came after the Big Data hype. It actually is something that marketers must care about.

According to Gartner Research, “By 2018, organizations that have fully invested in all types of online personalization will outsell companies that have not by more than 30 percent.”

I am not sure how they boldly put such a numeric prediction out. But in this case, I honestly think that the gap could end up being even larger, because the winners in this zero-sum game are moving at light-speed, while others still stubbornly carry that “If you keep reaching out to them, they will respond” attitude.

Being Clueless

I’ve actually met marketers who asked me how many more emails they should send out each week to compensate for an increasing number of non-responders.

They actually asked me if they can poke their customer base even more frequently. (They were sending uniform messages to everyone more than six times a week.) That means they had been diligently training the customers to ignore their emails.

I bluntly told them they just can’t mail their way out of that trouble. They should think about contacting their targets less frequently, and staying relevant as much as possible.

Do Unto Others

It is not difficult to sell the concept of personalization to marketers. They, too, are recipients of irrelevant marketing messages, and I bet that they mercilessly purge them out of their personal inboxes on a daily basis.

Surely, there are enough conference tracks, webinars, whitepapers and articles about this subject. But how are they supposed go about it? Do we even agree what that word means? (Refer to “What Does Personalization Mean to You?”)

Based on all of the client meetings that I’ve been to, the answer unfortunately is a hard “no.” And that conclusion was not solely drawn from some rudimentary practices being conducted by many marketers in the name of personalization, either. Because of available data and in different stages of customer relationship development, we do need to differentiate various types of activities under that all-inclusive personalization banner.

We Can Get There From Here

There are many personalization frameworks out there, listing various endeavors, such as collaborative filtering (as in “if you bought that item, you must be interested in these products as well”). Then there’s customer segmentation, and personas development based on predictive modeling techniques, usually in that sequence. If you add technical elements in terms of ability to show different things to different people, multiplied by content generation and content management pieces, things get complicated quite fast.

In any case, I do not agree with such sequential framework, as that is like saying the patient cannot be admitted to the operating room unless the doctor’s exhausted all of the simpler forms of treatments. Needless to say, some patients need surgery right away.

Likewise, when it comes to maximizing the value of data assets for personalization, marketers should not avoid predictive modeling by habit, just because it sounds complicated. That shouldn’t be the way in this age. If you want to be sophisticated about personalization, you’ve got to get serious about analytics without resorting back to simper, often ready-made, options. Unless of course, you as a consumer think that seeing offers for similar (or the same) products that you’ve just purchased for next couple of months is an acceptable form of personalization. (I don’t.)

Nuts and Bolts

Then, what should be the not-so-sequential data framework for personalization? Allow me to introduce one based on activity type and data availability, as no marketer can be free from data scarcity issues at different stages of customer relationship development.

Author: Stephen H. Yu

Stephen H. Yu is a world-class database marketer. He has a proven track record in comprehensive strategic planning and tactical execution, effectively bridging the gap between the marketing and technology world with a balanced view obtained from more than 30 years of experience in best practices of database marketing. Currently, Yu is president and chief consultant at Willow Data Strategy. Previously, he was the head of analytics and insights at eClerx, and VP, Data Strategy & Analytics at Infogroup. Prior to that, Yu was the founding CTO of I-Behavior Inc., which pioneered the use of SKU-level behavioral data. “As a long-time data player with plenty of battle experiences, I would like to share my thoughts and knowledge that I obtained from being a bridge person between the marketing world and the technology world. In the end, data and analytics are just tools for decision-makers; let’s think about what we should be (or shouldn’t be) doing with them first. And the tools must be wielded properly to meet the goals, so let me share some useful tricks in database design, data refinement process and analytics.” Reach him at

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