If anyone in online retail still thinks personalisation is the answer, they are asking the wrong question. Unfortunately, it remains a common misconception - the idea that personalisation alone is some kind of cure-all for online merchandising. And of course, any number of plug-and-play personalisation solutions providers - backed by seemingly-impressive proof metrics - are all too happy to perpetuate the myth.
But the truth is focusing on personalisation alone is just messing around at the edges. It’s one part of a much bigger picture - one in which the true Holy Grail is relevance.
Personalisation v relevance
Make no mistake, the distinction between personalisation and relevance is not mere semantics. There is dependency between the two, but they are not synonyms.
Personalisation is rarely an holistic experience - indeed, it is very often limited to specific e-commerce site elements. Recommendations, for instance, might include an element of personalisation in terms of the product assortment presented. Similarly, search features such as “did you mean?” and “autocomplete” may be partially driven by standalone personalisation and the same may apply to banner advertising, though this is notorious for displaying products consumers have already bought.
Relevance, meanwhile, is about the entire on-site experience. It is the consumer context from the moment they arrive, through every interaction while they are on-site. It is not about adding a bit of personalisation here and a bit there. It is about delivering an entirely relevant experience for every visitor, not a generic experience with small elements of relevance added as “seasoning”.
Does it really matter?
In a word, yes. Personalisation is only one of the sources that can affect the context in a dialogue, but the scope of relevance is far more extensive than just personal preferences. The challenge of relevance lies in the ability to embrace, manage and unify all of these dimensions into one simple answer for a user in order to optimise fully the customer experience.
In short, rather than merely providing a personalised journey on an e-commerce site, the entire customer experience needs to track the shopper intelligently and identify exactly what is of optimum relevance at each and every separate interaction from the second they land.
Currently, e-commerce sites don’t often facilitate this. In the background, there are usually lots of different vendors delivering components and pieces of technology - plug-and-play solutions designed solely for search or for recommendations and so on - that are not complementary and don’t work together to share data intelligently. So when a customer lands on a retailer’s site, the technology isn’t cohesive and provides an incomplete experience often at the expense of sales.
If search and recommendations solutions treat personalisation differently, can they truly deliver a consistently relevant experience? Will they even be consistent in terms of product assortments? If they are not, does this deliver the kind of customer experience that drives engagement and sales?
Delivering optimum relevance
The truth is most retailers need to rethink their approach to personalisation. In fact, they need to stop thinking of personalisation as an end in itself. It is merely part of a means to an end - the goal being to deliver online shopping experiences that are optimised for relevance and for every customer.
The only way to do that is to take an holistic approach, to recognise that relevance is about the entire context, not just small, siloed elements. It is about every on-site touch point for every visitor and the selection of touch points will be different for every customer, too.
In order to optimise fully the opportunity of relevance, there needs to be a unified approach to technology rather than disparate systems struggling to work together. In order to be truly relevant, retailers need the full data story and history of a customer. This means that each and every time they land on a retailer’s site it knows what they like from their previous activity and, often more importantly, what they don’t like.
Ideally, that retailer also needs to understand the context of every visit. Is the customer shopping for herself or for a child, a parent or a friend? This can only be understood via a single view of each customer, with in-session clicks and views collected and understood in real time - the specific nature of unusual or atypical behaviour will enable relevance to be tweaked according to a genuine understanding of visitor intention.
This insight, gathered via a single solution, can then drive a fully-optimised experience with intelligent, automated product exposure working consistently across recommendations, top seller lists, search, navigation, banners, content and more - not only according to personal preference, but reflecting context, too.
Very few retailers have yet grasped this concept, much less acquired the ability to deliver it. But e-commerce is about evolution, not revolution and the smart retailers, those already one step ahead on the road from personalisation to relevance, will gain lasting competitive advantage.