Real-Time Personalization Hurdles

First off, Happy Holidays to you and yours! I love this time of year, because I get to do my two favorite things: spend time with the family and eat.  
When I'm not eating, I've found myself spending a lot of time contributing to 2015 predictions and a general review of 2014 from the eyes of a consultancy driving the analytics maturity for some of the largest organizations in the world. I even outlined some of this in my previous newsletter in case you missed it!
2015 Hurdles
Real-time personalization is all the rage from both what our clients are looking to achieve as well as the buzzword that every industry contributor likes to throw around. If you aren't seriously considering how to achieve this within your organization for 2015, then you are doing it wrong. The beauty of this approach is that technology has paved the way for this to be a reality, but it doesn't come without its fair share of hurdles. I want to help your organization achieve this reality by tackling some of these hurdles in this newsletter:
  • Culture
  • Technology
  • The Role of Content Management Systems (CMS)
  • Privacy
  • Security
Culture is the backbone of any organization or team; without it, you'll never become a high-performance team. Ultimately, without establishing a culture that values a high level of accountability, you'll never reach the highest potential level of maturity in your analytics program. When it comes to real-time, the main inhibitor is a culture that doesn't feel accountable to making decisions in real-time or is averse to the higher level of responsibility to deliver timely insights from the data.
Historically, the industry has always referred to having "Executive Sponsorship," but personally I think this is only half the story. Simply saying that analytics and measurement is important won't get the job done if there isn't a level of accountability to produce results and insights more quickly tied to that message. Job descriptions, and the measuring stick for yearly reviews, need to be adjusted to accommodate for the changing landscape in our industry.  
I've seen this in action within a variety of clients that have done great things with their data in 2014. Several times, I’ve witnessed a room filled with blank stares in response to the question of "well, what are we doing with all of this great data?" The reason is that the responsibility to do something with that data passes from the data team to the business users. Yet those business users are typically in over their heads and don't want to admit to leadership that the onus is on them to take it to the next level and generate a ROI.
Your culture needs to adjust the tactics, prioritize investments and ultimately restructure what you require from the business to take your program to the next level. This can be in the form of automating manual processes, shifting mindsets and removing wasted energy on tactics that no longer matter or add value.  
We live in a world where technology is advancing faster than any organization can keep up with, which means that there are most likely ways to improve your current ecosystem. Let's do a simple exercise: open up Excel and list all of your technologies in your analytics program down the left hand side. Across the top, put the following labels:
  • Used in the last week
  • Trust the data
  • We Own the Data
  • First Party Data
  • SaaS Technology
  • Visitor-Level Data
Put a 1 in the table for each technology if you can answer "Yes" to the statements. If you have a technology that has scored a 4 or lower, then it's time to seriously look at that particular technology and evaluate the capabilities and existing implementation.
Specifically, if you don't own your data then you are behind the times and that should be your focal point for 2015. Data ownership is the path to real-time personalization. Many 3rd party technologies (especially advertising pixels) inhibit your ability to build a customer profile based off of first-party data that you don't have to rent every time you need to conduct an analysis. First party data is the industry best practice and it needs to be driven with the visitor as the top node of the data tree. This is how you enable a path to real-time personalization.
So, once you have that data flowing in from a first party standpoint, how do you go about ensuring your other technologies have access to it? This is where a vendor-neutral data layer comes into play. Let me reiterate: vendor-neutral. Do not let your technology vendor build a data layer for you that works with their technology. Instead, build one within your own digital environment and have it communicate with the technologies that require it. At Stratigent, we have built a proprietary way to think about structuring a data layer and I welcome you to reach out for more information on that.
Make 2015 the year that your business requirements dictate which technologies remain part of the program instead of letting the technologies you've selected determine which business requirements can be fulfilled. 
The Role of Content Management Systems (CMS)
I have a saying that I use all the time with clients and even internally at Stratigent when it comes to management: highest and best use. You should always be looking to put every person, technology and process to its highest and best use.
With that statement in mind, let's remember it is called a Content Management System and not a Content Optimization System. When building a real-time personalization engine, you'll likely be met with resistance from your technology stakeholders who want you to use your CMS as the primary driver and "rules engine" for your personalization platform. This is a mistake. It is not the highest and best use for your CMS and would not build the most scalable and flexible architecture with your future-looking vision in mind. To be truly real-time beyond simple personalization rules, you require a cloud-based solution that can react client-side based upon the current session for a visitor as well as any history you might have about that individual.  
The right solution is to leverage a Tag Management System to deploy personalization tools that interact with the data layer that you own. Content would be displayed as a result of your CMS and a Data Asset Manager (DAM), but the decision of what content is displayed would be handled by the cloud-based architecture.  
There is quite a bit of chatter these days about whether marketers should be looking to build their own marketing cloud or buy one (Adobe, Google, IBM, etc.).  I recently participated in a webinar moderated by CMSWire, where I provided my perspective on this topic. Truth be told, there isn't a marketing cloud out there right now (sorry, Adobe) that can meet all of your needs in one fell swoop. Focus on your business requirements and vision and use that to determine which technologies fit based upon their "highest and best use."
Honestly, this isn't even remotely the largest hurdle out there anymore despite the years of fear around this concept. At this point, it's more about not "creeping out" your customers than it is about the data you are collecting. Sure, there are regulations that you need to understand (especially when it comes to International Data) but overall, the approach can be broken down to: make sure your privacy policy is up to date and encompasses how you plan on collecting data in 2015.  
Focusing on first party data, and owning that data, is actually one of the key ways of avoiding privacy violations. Be upfront with your customers, educate them and help them understand the value of the data that you're collecting about them. Also, don't be afraid to point out that they might lose desirable features and levels of convenience if they don’t agree to be tracked as outlined in your privacy policy.
I'll start by saying that North Korea didn't force me to add this into my newsletter this month :). I think situations, such as the variety of data breaches that have happened throughout 2014, have made data security a much larger issue than privacy. Building a real-time personalization engine requires client-side, cloud based architecture that can respond quickly to specific visitor interactions. In order to make that function properly, you need to pass customer information into these systems and it obviously creates more potential for failure along the way.
Why does it have to be cloud based?  
Many of the "racked and stacked" data warehouses simply weren't designed for real-time data. Performance is key to overcoming IT stakeholder objections to a "rules engine" that will determine what content is displayed to a visitor and that decision needs to happen at or near the same speed with which default content loads on the page.  
So, if we are forced to expose data into the cloud, what can be done to improve security? 
First, you need to fully understand and analyze the protocol in play for each technology you consider using. Ask these questions:
  • Where is the data stored and is that data stored separately or in a shared instance with other datasets?
  • What level of granularity exists with regards to user administration and access?
  • Can access be restricted to specific IPs?
  • Are there any protocols for encryption or obfuscation?
  • How is the infrastructure designed to account for real-time requests around the world?
The answers to those questions will help you determine the viability of the solution for your business. With these answers, you can build a schema for your vendor-neutral data layer and the appropriate governance process for your business. The data layer should be built with encryption (i.e. SHA-2) in mind when it comes to personally identifiable information (PII) as a way to protect your data from exposure in the case of a breach.  An appropriate governance model will help alleviate the potential for a breach.  
Getting beyond the “Utopian View”
This newsletter was not meant to scare you from taking on the challenge of real-time personalization. Instead, I wanted to simply go beyond the "utopian view" of what you should be doing with your data and layer in some real-world experiences from our customers to ensure you take the correct path for your business. If it was easy, everyone would do it and it wouldn't feel nearly as fulfilling once you accomplish the goal. So, here's to a successful 2015 for yourself and your customers!




By Bill Bruno
About the Author:

Bill Bruno is the CEO - North America, Ebiquity.

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