The Future of eCommerce Personalization is Context-Based

In the next frontier of the customer experience, the true measure of effective personalization will be your ability to understand individual shoppers’ current contexts, and deliver exactly what they are looking for in the moment of need.

This article was originally published in Multichannel Merchant.

We all know personalization is crucial for providing a great customer experience, converting shoppers, and earning long-term loyalty. But the way we define personalization is in serious need of an update.

You see, the traditional approach to providing personalized product recommendations — which is based on data such as age, gender, and previous on-site behavior — will almost certainly miss the mark for customers and deliver weak business results. 

The reason?

It’s missing one of the most important factors of tending to a person’s needs: context.

True personalization, or “hyper-personalization,” not only accounts for a shopper’s taste and demographics, but it also stays up-to-date with their changing needs, moods, and intentions on every visit.

In the next frontier of the customer experience, the true measure of effective personalization will be your ability to understand individual shoppers’ current contexts, and deliver exactly what they are looking for in the moment of need. 

The Definition of CX is Under Constant Evolution — And Most Personalization Engines Are Not Equipped to Keep Up

Imagine after several months, you return to a fashion retailer’s website to look for some new jeans and sweaters. Last time you bought something from this store was over the summer, when you purchased two bathing suits and sunglasses. Because of your prior behavior on the site, all of the recommendations you see are for bathing suits and coverups instead of the winter weather clothes you need. 

Or, imagine you’ve just added a new suit jacket to your cart, and now you’re on the hunt for some pajamas. Now, recommendations for the most comfortable sweats would be relevant for you, but you’re still seeing a bunch of business wear.

In both scenarios, the personalization engine is doing exactly what it was trained to do: it’s surfacing items you previously indicated you like. But as soon as your context shifts, it’s useless. 

Shoppers’ contexts can change in seconds, even within the same session. Unless your personalization engine can keep up in real-time, you will be unable to offer relevant recommendations that actually get your shopper to click “add to cart.” Moreover, irrelevant recommendations:

a) take up real estate from relevant items shoppers might want to buy, and 

b) add friction and distractions to the customer journey

This is one of the biggest issues with the customer experience today — it’s not built to evolve. What was considered a great customer experience last week may no longer satisfy a shopper’s needs. 

Provide Context-Based Personalization for a Truly Personalized CX

Consumers’ demands continuously shift based on their current contexts, and they expect their interactions with a brand or retailer to react accordingly.

To provide a truly personalized customer experience, brands and retailers must go beyond what a shopper likes and tap into their current intentions and needs. 

Here are three things you need to master to achieve hyper-personalization.

1. Listen to the Product, Not the Person

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the way to avoid irrelevant demographic-based recommendations is by forgetting the person, and focusing on the products they view, click on, and purchase. Within your product metadata — if it’s sufficiently enriched — lies a wellspring of information about your shoppers’ aesthetic preferences and tastes. And that information is as up-to-date as their most recent actions on your site. 

After all, a 35-year-old woman from New York could easily be shopping for a present for her husband. Demographic “wisdom” may suggest showing her the floral dresses her peers have recently purchased, but those recommendations would miss the mark so completely as to be a nuisance if she was tight on time and determined to find the right gift. 

Instead, if you were to consider the fine details of the items she’s viewing within that session, for example, the material, width, and pattern of the ties she’s browsed through, you’d be able to make much more relevant product recommendations. 

Traditional personalization has a blind spot for these fine deals, and for unpacking a shopper’s context in real-time. But today’s shoppers expect to be understood and catered to even when they’ve strayed from their usual shopping patterns. 

With technologies like visual AI, you can gain a deeper understanding of product details. Unlike conventional AI, visual AI actually learns about every individual shopper’s unique style and taste by analyzing the visual attributes of the items they interact with. This insight — which becomes sharper and more on-point over time — functions like a long-time personal shopping assistant who understands exactly what their customer is looking for.

2. Use Connected Data to Provide Context-Based Personalization at Every Touchpoint

The customer experience is holistic. A person’s perception of a brand or retailer is the cumulation of every touchpoint he or she has had with them — from browsing on-site to scrolling past their ads on Instagram to receiving email newsletters to being retargeted on other websites.

Nothing signals to a consumer that you have completely disregarded their context like a fragmented omnichannel experience. 

Your on-site recommendations may have piqued their interest, but if your next marketing email offers completely unrelated products, they won’t click. Not only that, but they will think, This brand really doesn’t get me. Not only that, but you’ve just wasted a valuable opportunity to convert the shopper with products they would have actually loved and wanted to buy. 

With highly connected data, you can ensure all of your channels are updated in real-time according to a shopper’s shifting contexts and provide hyper-relevant recommendations that drive conversion.

For this, visual AI is the key. Instead of relying on outdated or generic data, visual AI captures granular details about each of the products your shoppers interact with on-site. This enables hyper-personalized recommendations that evolve as a shopper’s context changes, even within a single session. 

So, if in-session behavioral data tells you that a shopper is looking for a suit, visual AI data tells you they’re only interested in grey single-breasted suits.

A visual AI infrastructure can integrate with everything from your email service provider to your in-store experience, to ensure all products recommended align with shopper taste and context. 

3. Make empathy your anchor

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught the eCommerce industry many lessons. But one of the most profound lessons is that empathy is paramount to providing a great customer experience. In fact, empathy and personalization go hand in hand. 

Having empathy means understanding the feelings and needs of others. 

Context-based personalization is the ultimate form of “eCommerce empathy.” Only by understanding your shoppers’ current contexts as they change in real-time can you truly fulfill their needs. 

In the digital world, an empathetic customer experience covers the three E’s: effectiveness, ease, and emotion.

  • Effectiveness refers to the amount of value a shopper can get from a shopping experience
  • Ease is the level of difficulty a shopper needs to go through in order to obtain this value
  • Emotion is how happy or dissatisfied a customer feels about the experience

Context-based personalization increases value and ease for your shoppers, leading to more positive emotions and a better overall shopping experience.

It’s worth noting that while each of the E’s is of vital importance, emotion has the strongest influence on the way a shopper judges his or her experience. According to Forrester’s CX Index study, emotion is the biggest contributor to a person’s perception of their customer experience in 20 out of 21 industries.

Contexts Change With Every Passing Moment. Can Your Personalization Model Keep Up?

You hear it all the time — consumers’ standards for the customer experience are constantly rising. That may be so, but the more important thing to focus on is how their contexts are constantly changing.

Forget meeting rising standards if your CX can’t decipher a shopper’s basic needs.

The future of personalization relies on having an infrastructure that evolves and changes alongside shoppers’ contexts. One that knows them so well, a shopper can see the most relevant, inspiring products with the fewest possible clicks. 

With virtually every other form of media already providing context-based service (think: Netflix, social media, and music-streaming apps), eCommerce needs to keep up. With the right technology and a customer-centric CX strategy, this is achievable.