If you've been following web development in the past few years, you’ve likely come across the buzzword "responsive design" a time or two.  Today, web personalization is one of the more recent trends to land in the world of web marketing.  


What is Web Personalization?

Web personalization is a strategy that connects relevant information to the right audiences.  By leveraging data and insights, such as user behaviors and motivations, we can deliver stronger, more immersive content experiences.  Personalization strategies are expressed in a number of ways including, customized messaging and content, overall design, call to actions (CTAs), and user journeys.  The overarching goal in personalizing websites is to achieve deeper audience connections while fostering higher conversions.
In this blog we’ll dive a little further into the concept of web personalization and why higher education institutions should consider implementing this strategy site-wide.

Why Personalization?  It Increases Conversion Rates

Large, dynamic websites have the increased complexity “overhead” of appealing to different audience types while engaging each in a clear and direct manner.  This is especially true for higher education websites.  Universities and colleges often have diverse audience types from current and prospective students, to parents, faculty, donors, and alumni.  Even the local community and media outlets have important user roles.  
How do we engage these unique users who all have a divergent set of needs from the website?  How do we improve content discoverability in sites which are notorious for having hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pages?  How do we accommodate users who have long decision cycles and may need to return to the site several times before a final decision is made?  These are all challenges that web personalization can address.
Higher education sites that implement web personalization site-wide typically see high user satisfaction ratios - leading to increased conversion rates and stronger connections with audiences.  In fact, Monetate/eConsultancy, a user testing and web marketing agency, reported that organizations who employ web personalization saw a 19% increase in conversions, while HubSpot reported that personalized call to actions brought in 42% higher conversions than broad or generic CTAs.  Increases such as these are generally happy news for stakeholders as they represent a solid return on investment.


If it's So Great, Why Isn't Everyone Doing it?

Personalization requires equal parts strategy around users (personas), content, messaging, information architecture and in some cases, technology.  Many institutions have a broad understanding of who their primary users are.  In the case of higher education websites, user types are generally universal with of course some adjustments based on the organization.  
One of the challenges is the perception of which phase within the web design process web personalization is carried out.  It's common for organizations to view web personalization as a phase two initiative - something that can be implemented once minimums (e.g. a responsive, user-friendly design) have been achieved.  
The challenge here is that phase two may be further down the process pipeline than previously expected.  By the time it comes around, the site could be at risk of being outdated - to the point where baseline functionality take precedence.  This is especially true for higher education sites where projects tend to align with one-time funding initiatives.
At ImageX, users and business needs (and data) drive our design solutions throughout each phase.  An aesthetically-pleasing website design can reinforce an image of prestige, but if it isn’t helping users accomplish their goals and tasks, it can end up hurting the business more than helping.  

Planning for Web Personalization

Effective personalization requires strategy and planning. Here are the activities to prepare for personalization:


  1. Identify Organizational & User Goals

    1. Who are our users?

    2. What benefits does our institution offer them?

    3. How can we reach and engage them?

    4. How will we know when have succeeded?

  2. Develop User Personas

    1. What are the key audience types we want to connect with?

    2. What are their goals and motivations?

    3. What are their challenges & anxieties? Can we alleviate them?

  3. Map User Journeys

    1. What route will they take to achieve goals?

    2. What is getting in the way of them achieving their goals?

    3. What content will be needed for them to support their journey?

  4. Conduct User Testing

    1. What is blocking the users?

    2. Is the design meeting their needs?

    3. Is the content meeting their needs?

    4. Are they receiving it at the right time in their journey?


At the end of the data-gathering journey, we have a functional, working hypothesis that’s ideally framed around valid data.  Our emerging hypothesis should define who the users are, what they want (and equally as important, what they don't want), and the sequence and priority of content required to engage and compel users to take goal-driven action.  Of course, user testing prior to launch will give us valuable insight; a website is never complete, so plan for continual improvement and refinement.


Implementing Web Personalization

The first thing we recommend to our clients is don't put off personalization.  Start small when necessary but don't put it off.  Every institution needs to understand its audiences and how to communicate their value to them.  This is the heart of personalization, yet all too often the focus is on the technology.  


Personalization strategies can be implemented in modest ways from a technology perspective as long as the research and strategy component is complete.  If we use user identification as an example of this, we can implement manual self-identification into the web experience as the starting point.  We then take that user to their custom pages, content, messaging and calls to action. Of course this process can be automated with technology, but it certainly isn't required.


Key Take-Aways

  1. Personalization has solid ROI

  2. Outcomes are improved by understanding users and their motivations

  3. This understanding gives us both a framework and concrete ideas

  4. The best ideas often come from talking to users, not looking at graphs and funnels

  5. When beginning personalization, start small and be sure to measure


ImageX Media is offering a free website usability analysis.  Our team of UX experts can discuss your current website performance and how it might be improved by upgrading the user experience aspect of your website.  

Get in touch with us about our free analysis!