In Adobe's recent 2014 Digital Marketing Optimization Survey, 75% of respondents agreed that personalization is an effective method of converting site visitors into customers—yet many respondents struggle to implement a successful strategy.

Often, the struggle boils down to not understanding what personalization is.

It seems so simple: Ask customers what they want and then give it to them.

The Difference Between Personalization and Customization

Many marketers believe an immediate and mirror-like response to a customer's needs provides a personalized experience—except it doesn't. That's not personalization, that's customization.

So why do so many brands confuse the two? How is personalization different from customization? And who's getting it right?

First let's define both terms.

Personalization is collecting implicit or explicit user information to create a content delivery framework that not only manipulates the information presented to users but how it is presented.

Customization is when a user or customer explicitly states preferences and receives information or a product that matches those interests.

After 40 years of encouraging customers to "Have It Your Way," Burger King introduced an updated slogan in May: "Be Your Way."

Officials explained that the new tag line moves away from the transaction and shifts toward an "emotional connection," focusing on customers' lifestyles and behavior. The buzz surrounding BK's new strategy touted a more "personalized" experience. But it's not personalization.

Customization ("Have It Your Way") gathers information about what users like and then gives them exactly what they asked for.

Personalization takes customization a step further. It's the person who never wants the conversation to end. You know that person. Just when you've said your goodbyes and are ready to hang up, he suddenly remembers something important to tell you, "But wait! One more thing and then I swear I'll let you go!"

Although the approach may be bothersome, the information usually turns out to be relevant—because that person knows you.

Personalization helps you convey the right message, at the right time, to the right person. Over time, that curated experience becomes more relevant and more engaging.

Three Brands That Are Getting Personalization Right

A key player in the curated shopping experience is subscription retailer Stitch Fix. Though many brands continue to focus on customization tactics disguised as personalization, this startup provides contextualized service based on real-time behavior, interests, preferences, and customer data.

Because its business model calls for an ongoing relationship with its customers (monthly deliveries), Stitch Fix uses behavioral data in a much more intimate and frequent way than larger e-commerce competitors like Amazon.

First, users complete an online Style Profile that indicates their fashion aesthetic, size, color, price point, etc. They then pay for a "fix"—a selection of apparel and accessories based on their preferences. A personal stylist selects five items based on that information that customers can either keep or return.

Retailers like Walmart also are ramping up efforts to maximize mobile real estate with customer-centric features and functionality.

The brick-and-mortar stalwart recently rolled out a new spin on the e-receipt that combines in-store and mobile behavior for future targeted promotions.

Caribou Coffee is another retailer using technology to provide personalized digital experiences to customers. Using a mix of standard and not-so-obvious entry points, Caribou has cleverly found a way to capture customer data without customers even realizing it.

Of course, there's the standard profile registration and email signup prompt to receive discounts. But the site's deceptively exhaustive e-commerce customization process is a virtual minefield of marketing data—roast varieties, syrup flavors, coffee "samplers," etc. And with prominent location-driven calls to action sprinkled throughout the site, marketers are always aware of a visitor's comings and goings.

The biggest win for Caribou's strategy is user-generated content. The site not only encourages customer interaction, it promotes it, encouraging return visits and creating quasi-celebrities.

Questions to Ask Yourself About Personalization

So how do you know if you're on the right track?

Consider these five questions:

  1. What do you want to achieve with personalization?
  2. Who are your primary customer segments?
  3. What types of behavior or data are most valuable? And how will they be collected?
  4. How will the experience be delivered?
  5. What do you want to say?

Any strategy that does not include all those points is not personalization. And from an e-commerce standpoint, personalization helps you make sure the conversations with your customers never end.

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Tina Johnson-Marcel is the former senior content lead for Siteworx, a digital experience agency.

LinkedIn: Tina Johnson-Marcel

Twitter: @tjmarcel Tina Johnson-Marcel