Sharma: Why Personalization Must Evolve in the Visual Era


Ask ten different marketers to define personalization, and you’ll likely get ten different answers. Personalization in marketing has become a catch-all term—a grab bag of endless tactics that includes name merge tags, behavioral targeting, email triggers, content recommendations and so on. Traditionally, these tactics have also been pigeonholed into different industries including retail, travel & hospitality, and financial services.

The problem is that it’s hard for any brand to build a coherent strategy around all of these disparate tactics., you may ask, do I define personalization? First, let’s tackle what it’s not.

Gartner analyst Jennifer Polk recently wrote a provocative post about personalization that questioned whether brands should be chasing 1:1 marketing when segmentation can deliver relevance that is a lot easier to scale. While I believe that 1:1 marketing is valuable and achievable with the right strategy, Jennifer reveals an important truth that I agree with 100%: Personalization is not a goal. Personalization isn’t about broad primary outcomes; it’s a strategy marketers can use to achieve an end goal of boosting engagement, sales, and customer lifetime value.

We can debate the term 1:1, but I firmly believe that personalization is, and always has been about speaking to someone as an individual. That journey can start with segmentation, but can and should go much deeper. Let’s put that idea into context.

Personalization in the Visual Era

We live in a visual era—what’s often been called the “Instagram Era.” Visual persuasion is extremely powerful. This marketing psychology concept isn’t new, but with the means to take thousands of pictures, edit and apply filters at everyone’s fingertips, visual content is largely replacing written content across digital channels. This is evident in how consumers communicate with each other, but also how businesses communicate with consumers. Today, Instagram and Facebook Stories reportedly drive a significant percentage of Facebook’s $16B+ ad revenues.

Visuals give consumers something visceral to react to and a tangible touchpoint to interact with (e.g. the emergence of augmented reality in consumer marketing). The moment someone opens an email, looks at an ad, or navigates a website, it’s the entire visual experience from start to finish that compels them to engage, or lose interest and never return.

With that context, my belief is that visuals are the best way for brands to speak to consumers as individuals. This may sound easy, but it isn’t. Speaking to individuals with visual content is actually a monumental (but not impossible) challenge to overcome that’s the same across email, web, and display. It requires the entire concept of personalization to evolve from that grab bag of tactics into a larger overarching strategy.

Why is this hard? What are the obstacles preventing this for many marketers?

Where Personalization Solutions Fall Short in the Visual Era

There’s no shortage of solutions to optimize every single personalization tactic—and a lot of them are good. There are solutions for building and segmenting audiences, sending triggers and many other tactics. The problem is that legacy personalization solutions don’t solve for the real personalization challenge for today’s visual consumer: the content bottleneck. Polk hits it home with the line: “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Don’t Scale.”

Personalizing content at scale is a major challenge. The more data that marketers gather about their customers, the bigger impact it has downstream on creative production. Whether you’re dealing with weekly email campaigns, journeys with dozens of endpoints, or creating cross-channel consistency, businesses struggle to create unique creative at scale. Solutions for personalization tactics fail to address the creative bottleneck, and too often, marketing content falls to the lowest common denominator (i.e. everyone gets the same visual/image).

Shifting The Personalization Mindset

 When a retailer uses location or weather data to promote a relevant product, the customer need and the offer aren’t wholly unique, but there is an opportunity to add incremental value by aiming to deliver a unique experience. The offer is just one aspect of the entire experience. By overemphasizing segmentation, brands may personalize some aspects of the content, but then miss the mark by sending the same generic visuals to everyone.

Changing this requires a shift in the mindset of what personalization really is in the visual era. It’s not about throwing segmentation out the window. It is, however, more than just leveraging certain types of data for various tactical elements. Brands want to be able to activate all of their data and use it to tell a visual story to the individual—and this needs to happen in real-time and at scale. Yes, location and weather data is one way to target, and we know it works. But the data available for personalization is vast, including customer, behavioral, and contextual information.

In some cases, the business has this content in-house and is easily accessible. In other cases, the business has invested in a cloud or on-premise technology that manages different aspects of their data, be it loyalty, customer data, next-best-offer, user-generated content, etc. To achieve success, brands need to not only be able to access any data wherever it sits, but unify and actually turn it into a compelling visual at the last millisecond that compels consumers to act.

Data for targeting is essential in marketing, but with the rise of the big data craze in the 2000’s, the pendulum swung too far to the data side, and the emphasis on great creative got lost in the mix.


Today, data can inform and inspire great creative. In fact, data and creative are a potent combination in marketing. I agree that automation can optimize segmentation, testing, and targeting, but it is also the key to solving the content bottleneck. Brands have invested tons in tools for collecting and understanding data to deliver personalized experiences, but those experiences need to be visually engaging and consistent across channels. I also agree with Polk that emerging technology like AI and ML will play a big part in the continued evolution of personalization. Now is a critical time for marketers to rethink how they’re defining personalization in this visual era, adjust their strategies and assess their capability to speak to consumers as individuals through the power of visuals.