Strategy Talks Sitecore Part 3: Adaptive Personalization

August 05, 2015 Alex Ziegler

In this final post of my three-part series, I will introduce you to the Adaptive Personalization capability in Sitecore, which allows you to surface content based on the persona a user most closely aligns with.

As with all posts in this series, I will explain the following related to Adaptive Personalization:

  • What is it? – A description of the functionality.
  • What can it do? – A scenario showing how the feature can be used by a relationship-based business like yours.
  • What can you do? – Suggested activities you can do to lay the foundation for gaining the most from the functionality.

In one of my previous blog posts (You Said I “Might Like” That???), I talked about the many benefits of creating a personalized experience for visitors who come to your website. This continues to ring true; especially for professional services firms which offer such a wide range of expertise and have different stories to tell depending on the audience.

What is great about the latest release of Sitecore (v.8) is that there are now some simple personalization methods you can begin to test on your site. The sky is the limit when it comes to the level of personalization you can achieve using Sitecore, but in this post I am going to focus on one of the most simple forms which is to classify your users by persona and have the site adapt to their interests behind the scenes.

What is it?

Adaptive personalization allows you to dynamically present content on your site based on a user’s behavior over time. It’s different from “rules-based personalization,” which presents content based on specific user attributes (e.g., someone’s current location in the world or a certain keyword search they performed).

You can always combine adaptive and rules-based personalization, but the adaptive method is best if you’re looking to personalize your site using broad strokes with smaller variation in content. For example, if you want certain pages of your site to feature a different article for a student recruit looking for a job vs. someone who is a prospective client, adaptive personalization is a good choice. As this individual’s relationship with your firm changes over time (e.g., they are converted from a prospective client into a current client and start to be interested in different content on your site), the content surfaced for them will adjust as well. Hence the name “adaptive.”

To implement this form of personalization, you need to start with a solid digital strategy as your foundation. This involves defining and fully understanding your main user types (or personas). It also involves determining which pages of your site each persona is most likely to view. Finally, it requires that you determine what content should dynamically display for each persona. Once you have all of this set up, when users visit various pages, the system can match them to one of your personas and – voila – they can now see dynamically presented content that is specifically relevant to them.

My favorite way to think about this concept is to compare it to Harry Potter. Remember how the “sorting hat” was used to decide which house each student belonged to by recognizing the true spirit of the person who wore the hat? Adaptive personalization is similar because it continuously looks to sort your users into a small set of personas based on their site behavior (a powerful indicator of who they are as users).

Which persona are you most aligned with?

sorting hat

Similar to how there are just four houses in Hogwarts, Sitecore recommends that you only use a limited number of personas when you use this approach. If you’re interested in personalizing based on more specific attributes (e.g., industry or capability focus) that is possible using profile cards (not persona cards) and involves more complexity. It also requires that you have a significant variety of content to display for each of these cases.

What can it do?

Segmenting Your Audiences
Imagine that your team meets to brainstorm the main types of audiences who visit your website. You determine that the biggest difference in their content needs is the relationship that they have with your firm. You land on the following set of audience segments:

  • Current client
  • Prospective client
  • Student recruit
  • Alumnus
  • Media

Developing Personas
Once you define this set of audiences, you obtain a variety of insights about them by utilizing different research methods. You conduct surveys, interview a sample of individuals, and even study some users as they navigate your site. You compile all of these findings into personas, which are a method of generalizing each user type’s needs, challenges, and tendencies.

Assigning Persona Scores
Based on your findings, your team starts to discuss major sections of your site. For various pages, you ask yourself – “Which of our personas would be most interested in this content?” and allocate scores based on this. For example, for one page, you say that a prospective client would likely be interested in it about 75% of the time, while a current client may only be interested in it about 25% of the time. For other pages, such as a careers page, you know that only the recruit persona would be interested in this 100% of the time.

Defining What Gets Personalized
Now that Sitecore has the scores it needs to “sort” your users, it’s time for your team to consider what content you’d like to personalize for each audience. You decide to focus on the parts of your site that already include areas for featured content toward the top of the page. You think about the type of content that each persona would find most relevant. In the same “featured” spot on your site, you pick what each persona should see. In a sense, each persona will see your site through a different “lens,” with some content displaying uniquely for each audience.

Testing the Personalization Approach
After at least a month of personalization working on your site, your team is anxious to see how it’s performing. You look to see if your content is getting any more visits than in the past. You also see the breakdown of the users who visit your site (i.e., how many are matched to each persona type) and view detailed site analytics organized by these segments. This gives you a lot of insight into who is visiting your site and how you can make content event more relevant to them. Your team continues to review, make updates, and test on an ongoing basis.

What can you do?

  1. Define Personas: Conduct brainstorm sessions internally to determine what user segments make the most sense for your organization. Additionally, conduct user research and develop personas for each segment. This will help you to understand how your users typically arrive to your site, why they are there, and what they are looking for.
  2. Score and Assign Content: For various pages across your site, assign a score indicating how likely each persona is to find that content interesting or relevant (note: visits to these pages will be used to help sort your users by persona). Additionally, define what content you’d like to uniquely display for each persona group and where this content should appear on your site.
  3. Test Your Approach: Continuously check your analytics data to see your users and their site activity broken out by persona (note: the best way to do this is to take data from Sitecore and use Google Analytics for the reporting piece). Use insights from these data views to determine whether or not personalization on your site is attracting more visits from the users who would find the content most relevant. If not, re-visit earlier decisions you made throughout the process above and continue to monitor for new insights.

That wraps up this blog series about Sitecore. I hope you’re now just as excited as we are about the new functionality that Sitecore v.8 has to offer.

Want to see what you missed from the previous two posts? Check out the links below:

Customer Profile

Path Analyzer


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Alex Ziegler

At the time of publishing, Alex was a Strategist at One North.


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