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The Pros and Cons of Personalization


Chris Butler: Welcome to the Newfangled Agency Marketing Matters Podcast, I’m Chris Butler.

Dave Mello: And I’m David Mello.

Chris Butler: And this is Dave’s first time on the podcast.

Dave Mello: I know, it’s very exciting.

Chris Butler: Dave is our Director of Technology and I was thinking the other day, Dave, that you and I have worked together longer … Well, I’ve worked with you longer than anyone else in this office.

Dave Mello: Really, is that true?

Chris Butler: That is true.

Dave Mello: Oh, that’s amazing.

Chris Butler: Yeah, because Dave and I began working together in the Providence office, back when we had a Providence office.

Dave Mello: Oh, but I don’t think I met you there, though.

Chris Butler: No, you did.

Dave Mello: Did I?

Chris Butler: Yeah, so Mark wasn’t there because Mark had already moved down south. But, Dave was there and Dave and I are currently the only people still at Newfangled who were in that office at that time.

Dave Mello: Yeah, for a while, you were in Malaysia.

Chris Butler: That’s right.

Dave Mello: And then, we met up again when you moved down here.

Chris Butler: Right, so it’s been a long time.

Dave Mello: It has.

Chris Butler: Yeah. But anyway, I’m happy to introduce our audience to Dave. Dave is responsible for an enormous amount of Newfangled’s history as well as things that happened here at Newfangled and most of our clients are the beneficiaries of his knowledge and expertise, whether or not they know it. So, I’m excited to have you here.

Dave Mello: Awesome. Thank you, Chris.

Chris Butler: Yeah, so, we normally like to begin with just talking quickly about something we’re excited about. Something that’s been going on, sometimes relevant to work we’ve been doing, and sometimes relevant to more peripherally what our audience is interested in. So, would you like to go first?

Dave Mello: Sure. Well, it’s Fall and by Fall, I mean we had one day of fall and now we’re back into summer again, but I was actually really excited to have that one really, really nice day of Fall. I got to wear a jacket, which made me really happy.

Chris Butler: Yeah. We suffer through a long summer here in North Carolina.

Dave Mello: Which seems to be just turning directly into spring this year.

Chris Butler: I know, I know.

Dave Mello: We’ll see. But, no, we’ve got a lot of stuff going on and I think what I’m most excited about right now is we’re taking the time to kind of pull in all of our different systems that we’ve built over the past four or five years and sort of unify everything under one visual design, which is really nice. We have a lot of cool tools and a lot of great things here for our clients, but having everything sort of feel the same, look the same, is gonna be really nice.

Chris Butler: Right. We’ve always added in things, added in tools, technologies, and interfaces sort of at hock.

Dave Mello: For sure, I mean, we’re a small company. It’s basically just me, so we’ve had to really decide where to spend that time and we’ve been able to get a lot of value out of that time, I think, over the years. But, being able to sort of pull it back together and for me, honestly, it’s really making me realize how much value we’ve created, seeing it all together for the first time. Seeing everything working together.

Chris Butler: Right. There’s a lot of IP in the various interfaces that we use internally or that our clients use, some of which is for reporting purposes, some of which is for creative purposes, some of which actually has to do with the guts of the interface layer we’ve built between a variety of different marketing technologies and our clients’ websites. And for the majority of that time, they’ve all been these discrete things. They all talk to one another and that’s always been true. But, in terms of the experience of using them, they felt siloed. And with the most recent addition to that picture, our Insight Engine, which for those of you listening, we talked about in our last webinar, the Firm of the Future Part 2 and Dave was on that as well.

That has allowed us to create a visual experience that we can then make the umbrella for everything else and …

Dave Mello: Sure. And by we, you mean you, of course. You did a fantastic job designing it and I think once we saw that in action, it was really a really good impetuous for us to then, go back and sort of apply that to everything else we offer.

Chris Butler: Yeah, it feels like Newfangled.

Dave Mello: Exactly.

Chris Butler: And I think we want that to be true of every corner of our clients’ experience. So, that’s a great thing to be excited about and I think there’s a lot in there that actually will pertain to the conversation I want to have today. Similarly, I’m excited because I’ve been working behind the scenes with David Baker, who’s been a trusted friend of our company for many, many years and a great client and we are working with him to rebuild his website. Which is something we don’t really do that much anymore, particularly on the design side. But, because we know David so well and because we have such a good relationship with him, we actually offered to do the design piece this time around. And so, I’ve personally been doing that, which is something I never really get to do and has been a joy to do because David has been great to work with.

But also, has allowed me to sort of articulate some things that I think are relevant to this conversation and relevant to what we’ve achieved on the product side, but in the context of client work, which again, that’s not really our business anymore. So, I’m excited about that. For those of you listening, we’re hoping that you’ll be able to see this as soon as possible. The dates are a bit in flux right now, but David is eager to see it live, as are we, so we’ll keep you all posted on when that happens.

Dave Mello: Awesome.

Chris Butler: But anyway, so what do we want to talk about today? So, we had this conversation with the … The Firm of the Future webinar about the degree to which technology like our Insight Engine, it’s really a tool that both does the right data synthesis, so there’s reports all over the map that are gonna be relevant to people doing new business development and marketing for firms like the ones we work with, expert firms, people knowledge workers. And what we are trying to do is aggregate the right information, redistribute it properly, and then use the data that we collect as a way of telling people what they ought to do next.

Dave Mello: Or to learn what we ought to be telling people what to do next.

Chris Butler: Correct. Well, both, right, because the tool can’t tell you until it observes you for long enough and that’s sort of the heart of machine learning. But, what’s interesting about that is that a tool like this is the manifestation of our thoughts about what we should be depending on machines to do and in particular, the way that the machine learning approach can personalize two experiences, both the experience of the person using it for administrative purposes. So, is the machine showing them the right data at the right time? The right person the right data at the right time? As well as the outbound marketing experience. So, are we able to personalize outbound communications and the nurturing experience based on what a prospect has done?

Dave Mello: Sure, so now you’re saying outbound, but that also applies to somebody who comes organically to a site for instance, we could be talking about that as well?

Chris Butler: Yes, yeah, as far as nurturing is concerned, yeah. But, what was interesting as, and this is a thought I had since the webinar, is that we are constantly talking to clients about personalization generally and what people get excited about is personalizing the content experience on the site. Personalizing information architecture, personalizing the distribution of content, personalizing what people see next, based again, on the same data pool. And we often find ourselves talking our clients out of that. And so, what I thought we could do is just talk a little bit about personalization generally. What it’s good for, what it’s not, why we might caution a client on thinking about personalized content experience, particularly in the context of a marketing website and also, what technology plays a role in that.

So, I guess off the bat, clients interested in personalizing the content experience, what might give you a pause about that? Why would you have reservations about that?

Dave Mello: Well, I think the fact that we are talking about marketing websites, really, is the key. Personalization in the context of Amazon or Facebook is a much, much different idea.

Chris Butler: Correct.

Dave Mello: Here, we’re talking about really focusing on one’s knowledge based expertise and that’s not something that I think should really change when someone’s experiencing a site. That’s not something that they should come back and they might want to come back and read a very specific article or something that really impressed them before and to have them come back and now, suddenly find that, that’s gone because we’ve just basically made a guess and now, assumed that they’re not interested in that topic, I think is really doing those people a pretty big disservice.

Chris Butler: Right. So, in general, it sounds like what you’re saying is that when it comes to marketing and the degree to which content marketing makes that effective, making assumptions is much more risky.

Dave Mello: Sure.

Chris Butler: Right? Even if they’re data informed, you mentioned Amazon, which I think is a really apt comparison to think about in terms of this request. So, let me put it out there hypothetically. A client might say, “Listen, we’re learning all of this stuff about the people who come into our site. Number one, we know what they search for and what brought them to the site. If that’s relevant to us, we could start to use that to say, ‘Hey, if you’re interested in that topic, well here’s all the content about that topic.'” Here’s a couple of things to think about.

Number one, that’s a really idealistic, that’s not actually that common unless you have a certain subset of Google tools set up, it’s no longer that available to you what specific query was searched for. So, number one, that’s probably not gonna happen that way. Number two, okay, let’s say we do know. Let’s say we know the three words they used to search for that brought them into your site. What we don’t know is what they don’t know what they need to know. And if we know enough about our prospect, we know, and particularly in reference to the complexity of what we offer, let’s say … Let’s use ourselves as an example. There’s a number of different topics that are gonna be relevant to an ideal prospect for us, that are quite deep in and of themselves. The customer relationship management tools and the degree to which they set up the right data repository for new business development, marketing automation, content strategy, even the website and IA stuff that we talk about.

Those are all really deep magisteria that you could expose someone to. But, you never want to say that an ideal prospect for us is only interested in one of those things. And they may legitimately land on our site based on an interest in one of those things. But, if we were to assume that, that’s all they need to know or all they want to know and we start only showing them that content, then they’re getting a really partial view. But, the other thing I wanted to say about Amazon is that Amazon redoes this every time you express interest in something because Amazon has the luxury of having multiple sales cycle. Amazon isn’t the kinda store that you buy from once and never again, but when you’re buying a marketing service or when you’re buying a professional service, recurring purchases are much less common.

And when they are common, they’re enacted a very different way. The initial purchase, the initial engagement purchase is handled one way and then, when you resell back into your client pool, that’s handled in a very different way. You don’t expect the content marketing experience to play a role in the same way it would for an initial purchase. And so, you don’t have the luxury that Amazon does of reselling to you and recycling you through that personalized experience, which is why if I’m looking to buy a weed whacker this week and I search for that on Amazon, next time I go to Amazon, I get tons of outdoor related things. They’re like, “Well, how about these gloves? And how about this towel?”

Dave Mello: Which is the thing you were interested in basically three weeks ago.

Chris Butler: Right, right. But, as soon as I search for a new microphone for our recording set up here, they’re gonna catch on and show me that stuff instead. So, a personalization in the consumer area can be much more elastic and much more flexible. But, in marketing, I think is really dangerous.

Dave Mello: But, I think the idea of a filter bubble and I forget who actually said that originally.

Chris Butler: Eli Parison.

Dave Mello: Yeah. That’s real for companies like Amazon, but it’s also real for us. I mean, we have content that we’ve been writing for the better part of ten years that pertains to website development. And most of our organic traffic currently comes from that. And if we were to base all of our assumptions upon what people are interested in, we would filter stuff out to show them just stuff about website development and that would not be doing us any favors or people coming to our site because they wouldn’t learn about what we do now and what we’re actually really good at.

Chris Butler: Right. That actually speaks to the main issue here, which is complexity and how that relates to what you’re actually offering as a business. The point you just brought up is really interesting because just this morning, Mark and Julia Vanderput and I did a site purge.

Dave Mello: I thought I overheard that, yeah.

Chris Butler: So, we went through, I pulled up the top 100 entry pages of our website over the last year. And as it turned out, there were about 30 pages that receive an enormous amount of incoming traffic that aren’t really relevant to what we sell, and it’s demonstrable in the analytics themselves, that the bounce rate is very high for those pages and the conversion rate is very low. Which means that somebody’s coming in because they have a question about that subject, they’re learning, they’re going to school on our website and then, they’re leaving. They’re never gonna hire us. So, first and foremost, before you think about personalization in terms of the context experience, you need to think about whether or not that would ever be relevant to your business. Do you actually sell radically enough different things that isolating someone from that vantage point might make sense?

And it might, we have some clients where in the initial planning of their new website around their new marketing plan, they think about having several front doors, so to speak. Identify yourself and then, go down this tunnel. And I usually argue people out of that as well because I think that in the professional services arena, relying on the prospect to self identify is pretty dangerous because often, when you’re offering a service that’s particularly complicated, you can’t really expect the prospect to be able to accurately self identify, especially in line with the way that you might divvy up your services. It’s better off to help them identify. So, if you’re expecting them do that, first and foremost, you’re probably have someone make a mistake. And if that locks them in, to a certain content experience where they can only get out of it by emptying their cookies, which most people aren’t aware is even what’s at the root of it. Then, they’re never gonna know the right stuff. But, doing it the other way around might make sense.

Dave Mello: So, that’s basically what kind of personalization you don’t want to do.

Chris Butler: Right, right.

Dave Mello: So, now what about the personalization that you do want to do?

Chris Butler: Well, right, so maybe talk a little bit about how that might relate to lead nurturing, and the kinds of technology that we use for lead nurturing?

Dave Mello: Sure. So, you mentioned that we were seeing a lot of people coming to our site based upon topics that we’re not really interested in having people read about anymore.

Chris Butler: Right.

Dave Mello: And they’ll learn from that and then they’ll basically bounce. They won’t engage in … That speaks to the fact that, really, what we want people to do is engage with us. We want to have people feeling compelled to take the next step.

Chris Butler: Right.

Dave Mello: And to your point, I think we’re able to craft that story much better than they are. We have a really good idea of what kind of flow we want to guide people through when they’re learning about what our services are. To that extent, I think there are ways that you can prevent or basically present better and more apt engagement points for the actual visitor based upon what they’ve done before. So, that might be something like progressive profiling, where we’re asking for additional fields about them, but I think more relevantly, it might be progressive engagements where you have calls to action that change based upon what they’ve done before. That could go as far as engagement points that lead people to webinars that relate to the topic that they’re currently reading about as long as you’ve said that what they’re reading about is a topic that we want to sort of push them towards.

Chris Butler: Right. Yeah, I mean, we’ve referred to this idea of progressive this idea of progressive engagement by way of technology names in the past. Especially on this podcast, we’ve referred to things like smart CTA’s, which I think we’ve all come around to realizing that isn’t the most apt name because we’re not being clear about what it’s being smart about.

Dave Mello: Right and I think at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is get people to engage and we’re trying to provide a customized that makes that more and more attractive to them.

Chris Butler: So, let’s sort of explain for those listening who aren’t sure about what we’re talking about how that would work. So, someone comes to our website for the first time, they may land on any given article page and see a couple of calls to action on the right side bar, some of which may have forms in them or not, it depends on how they’re operating. But, an initial low level one might be, “Hey, subscribe to our news letter. Stay informed.” It’s basically a way of saying, “Hey, don’t feel the need to bookmark this site, we’ll tell you when something’s new,” and that’s the lowest level investment. The person needs to give you their name and email address. But, after that, you don’t want to ask them for that anymore. That slot, so to speak, that informational slot becomes dead. So, you’re better off using it to ask for the next thing that you might think might be relevant to someone who just took that leap.

Perhaps it’s offering them a specific piece of content that you think is high value. And a way to think about a high value piece of content is, “Hey, if you had 15 minutes to give somebody the most important information about your firm by way of a piece of content, what would that be?” Is there a white paper that’s truly evergreen in terms of mapping directly to what it is that you do? What you sell, your core expertise. Is there a webinar? Is there some kind of gated asset that would be the best representation of what you do? And that might be the next thing that you tell your system to show after that and that’s what we’re talking about, about progressive enhancement. We’re thinking deeply about what the prospect’s experience is in relation to the kinds of information we’re able to offer them and we’re letting the site do that on an automated basis, which is really personalization.

Dave Mello: Right. And we’re not changing the context of what they’re learning about, but we are changing the context of what their next steps are.

Chris Butler: Correct.

Dave Mello: And there can be a level of content that’s involved in that. For instance, if they land on an older blog post about content marketing, and we know that we’ve recently published a high level webinar about that topic, we might want to direct them to view that first before they even sign up. We might deem that to be the most important sort of next step. And that can vary based upon what steps they’ve taken already on the site and so, the more information we know about them and the more the content relates to the persona that we’re actually building about that person, we’re able to kind of relate those things together.

Chris Butler: Yeah. I think if you start to change the landscape based on assumptions or observations you make, then you think it benefits the prospect, but actually harms you, the marketer, the most. But, if you change the opportunity points, well, mostly, that’s a matter of sequence because the way the progressive engagement works is that if you identify a sequence, so first we want them to be able to subscribe to the newsletter, then second, maybe it’s this white paper or this webinar, eventually you’re going to go through everything. It’s just the question is, in what order? So, you don’t really have to worry about missed opportunity or pigeon holing somebody too early.

Dave Mello: Right, but on the same point, if somebody comes to the site and realizes that they don’t care at all about the services that you’re now offering, better to make that clear originally, rather than serve up content that might be five or six years old on our case.

Chris Butler: Yeah, well, and on that note, in regard to that site purchase that we mentioned earlier, we get a higher than average amount of incoming traffic for a firm of our kind and a site of our age and a site of our size even, in terms of the number of discrete articles it contains. But, we also have a higher than average bounce rate and probably a lower than average conversion rate. And the reason why is not because our conversion rate is unhealthy in particular, like our actual volume of conversions, in fact, it’s very healthy. It’s just that we have so much content and so much incoming traffic. And the majority of which is not really prospect traffic. It’s student traffic. It’s people who want to do what we or people who want to learn from what we’re doing.

People who want to learn from the site, but not by way of making a purchase decision. So, in the end, cutting that content out is a good move because we would rather have a smaller site with a smaller audience, most of whom take action, the right action.

Dave Mello: Which I think also applies to a lot of our clients. A lot of them have recently gone through some sort of positioning choice and they may have older content that doesn’t pertain and being really strict with yourself about that makes a whole lot of sense. And now’s the time to do it.

Chris Butler: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, positioning is such a … It’s amazing how often that concept comes up in this podcast because it really is central to every choice that you make moving forward. And if you start general, then it’s really difficult to get specific or to get particularly refined in how you actually articulate or take action on your marketing, right? You have to be general and therefore, it becomes less effective. And if you look at our website now, on our … The digital marketing method, you’ll see that we used to do it as a tree, we used to do sort of the core disciplines positioning and context strategy, content strategy website, CRM and marketing automation. We used to draw that out as sort of a taxonomical tree, one building on the other.

And now, it’s actually, it’s this hexagon that surrounds positioning, positioning being in the center. And in some ways, that’s not the most accurate because some of those things really do build upon one another, like you can’t really do marketing automation or CRM the way that we talk about it without a contact and content strategy in place. Content for people to look at and contacts for you to communicate with. So, they do build on one another, but it doesn’t really drive the point home that positioning isn’t just a support for that first two things, it’s a support for everything.

Dave Mello: Oh, it’s … Yeah, for sure.

Chris Butler: And I was just on the phone with a client the other day talking about, if you’re serious about this positioning move, then this is what that means for this small IA decision you’re about to make. It can always tie back to that. In terms of the choices we’ve made about something like the Insight Engine, that’s been at the surface every single time. Thinking about whether or not this will elevate the right particular data at the right particular time for the right particular person. And that’s a positioning choice, both at the firm level, but also the discrete role level.

Dave Mello: Exactly. What kind of improvements do you see in terms of providing smarter ways of engaging?

Chris Butler: I think the thing that I’m most interested in, in particular, something that I think is most relevant to you and the way that we’ve been working together behind the scenes, has to do, again, with the Insight Engine. I mentioned at the beginning that personalization can take the form of altering the site experience. It can take the form of changing the way you do progressive engagement. But, it also should change how you do outbound. And outbound communications, I think, are becoming more and more complex for the right reasons. The more … The wider your audience becomes and the more data you have about them, the smarter you can become about how you communicate. So, that doesn’t necessarily mean more communication in terms of the volume of emails that you send out or the frequency by which you send it out.

But, it also means, what do I specifically know about this person and how can that make my communications with them better? So, you mentioned if someone sees certain content, well, you never really need to promote that stuff to them again. But, if a new piece of content comes up that’s really specifically relevant to things that they’ve already looked at or choices they’ve already made or the sources by which you got that contact in the first place, you can reach out to them in a really unique way. That’s obvious, it’s just that the tool allows you to connect the stuff you know with the specificity by which you want to operate. So that’s interesting. But, the Insight Engine is supposed to help somebody take the next action that they’re not sure about, both on the new business side and the marketing, particularly on the marketing side.

And we want to be able to say to somebody, “Hey, based on your historical communications, this how you’re doing with them.” We’re looking at things like open rate and bounce rate as well as things like subject length and subject line length and the actual content of the email and the actions people took, we’re putting that all in a mixture together and saying, “Hey, this was successful and this was not. But, based on that history, this is what you ought to be thinking about and doing next.”

Dave Mello: Right. Or, “Here’s what people who have taken similar actions, who then became late stage leads, late stage opportunities.” What’s the missing piece that those people did that this person didn’t do? And now that we have all that sort of coming together we can start to see those patterns.

Chris Butler: Yeah. I mean that’s going to be huge because I’m amazed to this day how many assumptions are treated as sacred, especially within email marketing like, “Oh, we only send before noon on Tuesdays.” You know things like-

Dave Mello: Or reaching out directly by email should never be done, stuff like that. That in certain cases makes the most sense in the world.

Chris Butler: Right. Or you should never send more than X emails per week or per month or whatever it is. A tool like this should elevate the right objective analysis for the right person because it isn’t true that industry wide there is a perfect time and a perfect day of the week and a perfect size email and a perfect email frequency. It’s going to depend on the person and it’s going to depend on the organization.

Dave Mello: Right. If we were talking about a large eCommerce system that would be different. You could find large scale trends and patterns. That would be worth investing in even though you know you’re going to lose in that long tail. But here we’re talking about person to person, we’re talking about a very specific lead that you can engage with that makes a big difference.

Chris Butler: Yep. And then more globally and this is, I think the aspect of the Insight Engine, that is the least to find at the moment but probably the most intriguing, which has to do with combining all of the data that we look at, that the system can touch. So that’s contact related data, that’s outbound activity and all the data related to that. So what we send, choices that people make, how it’s consumed, times, dates, actions, the words themselves. All that stuff. Site related data based on who’s coming in, what they’re doing. All that session related data and then all the sales related data we’re tapping in sales-force, so who took what action when, what become real, what became what opportunity, what became … closed down.

Dave Mello: What type of firms were more successful.

Chris Butler: Right. So that we can be able to say at some point, “Hey a firm like yours should be seeing X and we’re doing Y.” That’s huge, because those are the big picture connections that I think are really difficult to make. Even if you’re small like us and you have some people with one foot in marketing and another foot in sales or one foot in R&D and product development like us and another foot … You have multiple feet in multiple places and actually sometimes can make you more myopic than you think.

You think that you’re making connections that no one else is making but in some ways your head is deeper in the sand and so what we’re hoping with this system is that, it can provide objectivity so that we can make faster and better decisions even on a broader scale, like I want the system to be able to give somebody a major conclusion like, “Wow! A firm like ours should be seeing this number of people interested in this particular type of content experience and we should introduce it.” That’s almost a crystal ball but I think it’s possible. And that’s personalization too.

Dave Mello: It’s true.

Chris Butler: And you’re going to build it.

Dave Mello: Yeah. Probably between now and by the end of lunch.

Chris Butler: Yeah, that’s classic. For those of you listening, a very classic experience that we’ll talk about something in a meeting and then Dave will come in the next morning and will be like, “So, I built that thing last night.” Which is-

Dave Mello: Which is also a good Litmus for whether or not your idea was good or not because if I don’t come in the next day and have it built then it’s probably a good indiction that I didn’t really like that idea.

Chris Butler: That’s a good point. That’s a very good point.

Dave Mello: So maybe you shouldn’t.

Chris Butler: Yeah. So we can wrap up there. This is been … I feel like this conversation could go on for hours depending on how detailed we’d want to be or how much scotch we had at the table perhaps, but-

Dave Mello: I have to clarify, we don’t have any scotch at the table.

Chris Butler: We don’t, which is why we’re wrapping this up in a timely fashion.

Dave Mello: Fantastic.

Chris Butler: But we do like to wrap up by talking a little bit about something that somebody might want to look at on the site. I would guess that both of our recommendations might be that last webinar. It’s a pretty loose conversation like most between you and I and Mark talking about where the Insight Engine came from, what it is today and what we hope it’s going to be tomorrow. It is a work in progress, it is something that very few of our clients and there’s no one in our audience has seen it yet. It’s very much new but it’s something that I think we’re really assuming is going to be a massive piece of the future.

Dave Mello: Our foundation for things that we don’t even know about. And that was the goal, is to have something that will teach us what it needs to become.

Chris Butler: Right. So take a look at that. If any of this conversation is been interesting, I would advise you to take a look at that webinar and there’s going to be more content about this on the site. Then we’ll be talking about it much more in the future but I really do think that this distinction, this personalization distinction is the future particularly for the way that marketing activity happens online. So I’m excited to see what we do at that in the future. Thanks for joining us Dave.

Dave Mello: Of course. Thank you.

Chris Butler: First time on the podcast hopefully not last.

Dave Mello: Awesome.

Chris Butler: And I will talk to you all soon.