For the first episode of our new podcast, Commerce Talk with SmartOSC, we took a look at the importance of personalization in eCommerce.
Host Adrian Wakeham, Regional Manager for Australia and New Zealand at SmartOSC, invited two special guest experts to come on the show to dive into what personalization is and isn’t, how to do it right, and what mistakes they see being made.
Co-founder of trailblazing bed linen label The Sheet Society, Hayley Worley has combined a tactile passion for working with fabric, colors and trends, and a desire to craft a universally ‘wanted’ product with flair. After identifying that bedding was a category in need of (desperate) innovation, she began to grapple with the idea of revolutionizing the way consumers shop for their sheets. Born from her frustration with myriad flaws in the linen market, Hayley envisioned a label in which shoppers could ‘see’ what they were buying properly, rather than touring packets of folded linen in department stores. In 2017, The Sheet Society stripped the beds of Australians clean and refashioned them with considered, indulgent, playful ensembles. Since then, Hayley and partner Andy have forged a feel-good, expertly sophisticated, and unbeatably spunky linen line that has grown into a household name.
Mark Baartse is an independent consultant helping digitally-led companies with growth strategy. He’s worked with a range of companies including Showpo (where they grew over 400% in three years with no funding), Woolworths, Officeworks, Microsoft, Vodafone, and others. He was named a top 50 CMO in Australia in 2018 by CMO Magazine, and #15 in the Top 50 People in Ecommerce list in 2019.
You can also check out this edited Q&A from the episode for some top personalization tips.
Adrian: Let’s kick off with one example of personalization. Most people probably recognize Rihanna for her music. But most of her net worth, which is currently sitting around the $1.7 billion mark, is due to her online cosmetic company Fenty Beauty.
The key to Fenty’s success has been the focus on inclusivity as a unique selling point. Rihanna saw a gap in the market to launch a makeup line focusing on a wide range of traditionally harder-to-match skin tones.
The website allows customers to find their shade, visualize how it looks on them via a lifestyle portrait, and even book virtual consultations. Now I have to admit, I'm not the target demographic. But I did have a play with the shade finder and the virtual try-on without creating an account.
Personalization can take a number of different forms and I noticed that the site doesn't have some of the more sophisticated personalization features switched on. For example, when I closed the browser and came back without clearing cookies or being in incognito mode, I wasn't presented with the imagery of the products I just looked at or in the shade that I had actually been recommended.
That being said, any thoughts on the Fenty website?
Mark: When we talk about personalization, it's two broad buckets. First, there's explicit personalization when the user is actively participating in it, which is the Fenty experience, or the Sheet Society experience. And then there's implicit personalization, which is what you were speaking about Adrian, when you went back to the homepage and it didn't say, “Hey, here's shade 180, do you want to buy it?” or it didn't show me pictures of models who would have similar skin tone, and that's what I mean by implicit personalization.
Adrian: Stepping back a little bit further, Haley what does personalization in eCommerce mean to you?
Hayley: I think at the core of personalization, it just has to feel like you've got something that you genuinely wanted. I think it can come as simple as the product offering that you're selling. It doesn't have to be your name embroidered on something that's unique every time. I feel like if a customer comes to a website and says, “Hey, you've got exactly what I'm looking for, I'm thrilled with this!” that to me is a personalized service at the core of it.
Adrian: In your own online shopping experiences, how much of a difference does that personalized experience make for you?
Hayley: It depends on what I'm shopping for, I think you can almost get quite gimmicky with levels of personalization. There are a few wine brands out there that will go through a questionnaire like what do you like to do on the weekend, what's your favorite movie, and then, you know, recommend a wine for you at the end. I think those experiences might just be for engagement purposes, not necessarily personalization experience.
It needs to be really practical. We've got a bed builder on our website where you can physically see the bed coming to life with the different colors and the different sizes and the different items that you're adding into that. That to us serves that core function, we brought that further into augmented reality and that for us was just a little bit of fun. And so you can get what you need on that 2D version. But if you wanted to play around a little bit more, there's that extra option. So for me, it's about finding that right balance between gimmicky and really worth your time.
Mark: Often the best personalization can be things you don't notice. I was chatting with the CMO of a large online lifestyle/fashion retailer and they were saying discovery is their biggest challenge. If you've got 50,000 items, how do you help people discover the right one? A lot of that is a personalization challenge.
Adrian: How does The Sheet Society use data to provide that personalized experience?
Hayley: I would say that we aren't utilizing our data well enough. We've got really good purchasing history and if you look at our product, we've got 22 different colors in our collection, and we can see what customer age groups are purchasing, what types of colors, and what combinations. And we haven't even scratched the surface of recommending different colors or different combinations to our existing customer base, we just haven't had the scope to do that at the stage. Phase one was just offering that level of customization at the front end, which is our bed builder. Phase two will really start to dig into the data and go into recommended items, we’ll specific email flows and things like that.
Adrian: How do you strike the balance between providing a personalized experience and ensuring your customers feel comfortable with your data collection?
Hayley: It's an interesting question with the new iOS updates. How we're kind of mitigating the risk of not having all of that trackable data for our remarketing list is really playing into our brand a lot more. We know that by providing a really great brand experience, regardless of if we can track customers over the internet until they come back to our website, we're working on getting them back to the website because they want to, not because they've seen a million ads.
Mark: People can go too far down the personalization route. I see particularly the young digital marketing people where they're just “audience, audience, audience”, “targeting, targeting, targeting,” which is great. And that can be very powerful. But they don't think about brands, they don't think about the experience, don't think about how can we create something that's so compelling, customers don't need to be remarketed to.
We've been talking mostly about website personalization so far, but it's about looking at all the different touchpoints. You've got a website, but you've also got email, Facebook ads, you've got Google ads. Even with a website, what content you have on your homepage, what recommendations are you making, what's your visual merchandising, these are all things that can be personalized, and they're all things that can be tailored. Each one of them has kind of its own unique challenge. So it's really about trying to create that experience across all touchpoints.
For use cases, one example is a furniture company, and one of the things they have on the website is the ability to browse by room. Say you go on to this website, and you go and go to the room part of navigation, you choose bedroom. What's happened is, even though you're not logged in and we don't know who you're who you are, we suddenly know you're interested in bedrooms. You're probably redecorating your bedroom doing something like that, so we can make assumptions at this point. So next time you come back to the website, instead of on the homepage it says “special spring collection” we can show “top tips for styling a bedroom”. That's something the user wouldn't notice that, but that's going to be more engaging.
You wouldn't work walk into a physical shop and say, “I'm interested in the bedroom stuff” and the salespersons not going to say, “Here's our sale, which has nothing to do with bedrooms”. Why do we do that online?
Adrian: For any brand at the beginning of their journey with personalization, are there any features that you would say are essential?
Mark: If you're doing it really well, perhaps people don't even notice you're doing it. You've got pretty obvious stuff. Like you'd go to the eBay homepage, it'll just show you stuff that you've browsed. It can show you show me stuff I browsed a year ago. That's very basic and very simplistic, and it's fine.
Adrian: What sort of things do you have to be careful about when doing personalization to avoid being off-putting to customers?
Hayley: It’s a case of putting the customer first and understanding their needs. When we launched the business back in 2017, I spoke about personalization being innate to our brand, and the ability to mix and match any color and any size. That functionality just was not possible on the free Shopify theme.
Looking at it from a customer's point of view, we needed to do whatever we had to on the backend to be able to build that into our site. So we did things like create custom skews for different order possibilities, we use the three different variant options in Shopify. We use them as double queen and king. And then we had to create skews behind each possible configuration. So for example, a double-fitted king flat sheet and standard pillowcases, and every single configuration had a skew in the backend, which meant that our customers felt like they could choose anything possible. It was an absolute nightmare for our systems.
I think instead of having 30 SKUs, we had about 2,500 SKUs for every possible combination on that product page. But as a business, we were able to make the call and say, “Is this the right thing for the customer? And does this look better on the front end?” Then let's do whatever we can on the backend. So it doesn't always have to be an expensive decision to go down a personalization route.
Adrian: Are there scenarios or businesses for which you think personalization isn't going to be worth the outlay?
Mark: I am sure that there's some exception I can't think of right now, but I think every business can benefit from it to some extent. But it's about cost-benefit. If you're doing $5 million a year revenue, probably you don't need very much personalization. The cost-benefit is not going to be there. But if you're doing $500 million a year, then it's a very, very different story. And if you're not personalizing at that point, then I would question what you're doing.