Part I of IV: Birth of the Personalization Architect

Thoughts About a New Role Implied by Targeted Web Content

February 20, 2015 | John Berndt

personalization architectThis blog post is excerpted from a longer chapter in my new full-length book "Personalization Mechanics: Targeted Content for Web Teams of All Sizes," which is now available.

As far as I can tell, when it comes out, it will be the only book on Web personalization written from the perspective of people who actually work on websites (the strategists and teams that build and maintain them), so it’s a much needed resource. I’m excited to be excerpting four sections leading up to the book’s release, to get the conversation started and give a sneak peek into the book’s content. This piece below adapts from the chapter “Team Composition and Operational Considerations.” The majority of the chapter concerns how the skills and working methods of existing roles (Web Strategist, Information Architect / UX resources, Campaign Manager, UI Developer, etc.) integrate with the business of managing personalization programs.

Introduction: Web Teams and Personalization Operations

Web content and experience personalization1 has become available to mid-size and larger Web teams, and has the potential to be an extremely powerful tool to optimize conversions, usability, and messaging by presenting more appropriately to the individual user. CMS Platforms like Sitecore, EpiServer and Adobe Marketing Cloud (formerly CQ) and HTC optimization platforms (Highly Targeted Content) like Monetate, Maxymizer and Optimizely bring content and experience personalization down to the shop floor, allowing marketers to track users and manage personalization rules without getting programmers involved.

The jury is still out on the degree of the impact that personalization can bring, but triangulating between reputable sources, it looks like well-personalized sites with appropriate traffic can expect to enjoy 10-20% shifts in key performance indicators (sales, other conversions). This is a radically new horizon of integrated Web activity—and one that Web teams that are alert want to jump on. But how?—that is the question.

One of the first things our more sophisticated clients ask me when we discuss adding personalization programs to their Web strategy is, “Sounds great, but when we launch, who is going to own this work and be accountable?” Anyone who has been in the Web for a while knows that if ongoing tasks don’t have owners—such as content creation, content migration, analytics, or optimization—they simply don’t happen. The roles and the people who fill them in a given Web team have everything to do with its ability to execute different kinds of work. Some organizations are already far ahead—for instance Nordstrom currently has 16 people on its “optimization team” working on personalized content, user research, and tracking.

Personalization work includes work activities that in some cases have strong corollaries in other Web disciplines, but in all cases involve new skills and new perspectives:

  • Personalization Strategy
  • Conversions and Goal Metrics
  • Audience Segmentation and Use Cases
  • Content Analysis and Strategy
  • Personalization Program Planning
  • Rule Development and Management
  • Tagging and Grading Content
  • QA and User State Simulation
  • Personalization Tracking

In my book, I spend quite a bit of attention on discussing different scenarios where existing Web roles are mapped to elements of personalization work, either in a partial or dedicated way, as personalization activity becomes more serious. The most important and potentially relevant of those existing roles are:

  • Information Architect / UX Professional / Web Business Analyst
  • User Researcher
  • Web Strategist
  • Content Strategist
  • Campaign Manager
  • UI Developer
  • CMS Architect

Personalization at any scale is typically a team effort, so some small subset of those roles, cultivated with new skills, is the appropriate team. There is a great deal to say about what different existing roles bring to the table, what mappings make the most sense, and what the basic and extended team compositions look like—none of which I will get into here. However, for anyone interested, I strongly suggest that chapter of the book!

I’m going to jump over that obvious first step here because I want to introduce the idea of a new role, a new competency, which I think will over time arise from this activity and has the potential to tie everything together, taking it all to a more serious, expert level: the Personalization Architect.

Drafting compassCultivating a Personalization Architect Role

As teams experiment with personalization, see the impressive results, and make inroads to integrating it with other operations, I think the bar will raise and Web teams using personalization will need more advanced and concentrated expertise; a specialized role. The ongoing activity itself will generate new categories of tacit knowledge2 that only come from experience; the little things that make the difference between successful programs and failed ones—not to mention, understanding all of the arcana of audience segmentation plans, effective rule management, and platform features.

Not everyone on the team will be able to focus enough to master all of this and productively bring it to bear. Although from the start, there will always be the need for a central manager of personalization activity; that role won’t necessarily encompass expert knowledge that gets the full value out of the technology.

This leads me to the Personalization Architect, which, in its best realizations will:

  • Understand and use conceptual frameworks to help organize organizational approaches to personalization (as discussed below). 
  • Think about personalization programs abstractly, and at some depth. 
  • Have specialist perspective on the UX and customer journey implications of personalization. 
  • Discuss content strategy as it relates to personalization, in depth. 
  • Demonstrate a complete mastery of the appropriate platforms, especially their rule building capabilities. 

They will be the person who you can confidently ask these sorts of questions, and get grounded answers:

  • Of these three possible personalization strategies, which one is most likely to produce near term results? 
  • How do we optimize these rules so that we get the best result? 
  • How is the underlying structure of our user segmentation and tagging biasing our results? 
  • How do we relate what we are doing in personalization to the recent updates in our CRM data structures? 

These are expert questions. Today, when the answers come, they are most likely the result of trial and effort experimentation—because the architect we are talking about generally doesn’t exist yet. This slows down what is possible, and implies a lot of waste.

When they begin materializing as a job description on recruiting sites, the architect is likely to have started recent professional life as a User Researcher, Web Strategist, or Personalization Manager, and have built their expertise up from a couple years of projects in a critical digital business environment—much as experts in site optimization appeared over the last decade. There are already vague “optimization” roles showing up, and some directors of digital sell themselves on having these competencies—but that isn’t the same thing as having an architect-level viewpoint on managing personalization. We need these people to start to show up on Web teams, or else ongoing Web content and experience personalization practice is going to be in great danger of ending up a becalmed outlier, something far less well understood than digital campaigns, and unlikely to realize its full potential.

Excerpted and adapted from Personalization Mechanics: Targeted Content for Web Teams of All Sizes © 2015 John Berndt.


1Also called “targeted content” or “user-appropriate content.”

2Tacit knowledge (as opposed to formal, codified or explicit knowledge) is the kind of micro-skill that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. You get it by actually doing things and it is hard to transfer to another.

About the Author

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John Berndt

I'm CEO of TBG and I've been thinking about the Web in creative ways since the year it began.

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