Personalization at scale will top enterprise priorities in 2021, experts say

Heightened customer expectations, an abundance of data, and the maturity of machine learning and AI capabilities are all prompting an even greater push towards personalization at scale in 2021.

That’s according to Judith Hammerman, head of growth for Adobe Experience Platform, as well as Justin Ablett, global lead for Adobe at IBM iX, who sat down with the Adobe editorial team to talk about personalization trends, challenges and opportunities in 2021.

According to the experts, personalization at scale will be a big push for large enterprises in 2021, especially as companies move away from reliance on third-party cookies, making contextual targeting and identity resolution more important than ever before. In the interview below, Hammerman and Ablett discuss how organizations can reduce data silos as well as the technological and cultural changes that need to happen within an organization in order for personalization at scale to become a reality.

What’s prompting the push for personalization?

Ablett: From my POV, there are three drivers that are defining personalization in 2021. The first is customers themselves and the level of their expectations online. There’s no tolerance for poor digital experiences anymore. And that’s especially true when we think about the crazy year that was 2020, where our day-to-day lives dramatically changed. The engagements that we, as consumers, have with organizations have changed as well, to be more virtual and digital.

The second driver of personalization is data. The key now is actually being able to turn that into value for customers and for organizations. The third driver is the maturity of machine learning and AI capabilities, paired with data. There’s been lots of experimentation over the last few years and we’ve now reached a tipping point where we can segment audiences based on customer wants and deliver highly personalized experiences.

Hammerman: I think the only thing I’d add is that data is indeed a big driver of personalization at scale, but most times that data sits in very distinct and separate silos. The data is not speaking to each other, and that is a big part of our challenge. Currently about 80 percent of all data coming through an organization is not usable and is not actionable. And that’s because much of the data is unstructured, and it is sitting in silos and isn’t speaking to each other. So, if it’s not speaking, and it’s in different places, then the understanding of that data and activating it into personalized experiences becomes very difficult.

COVID-19 has been a huge driver of transformation this year. If you were doing personalization and offering advanced digital experiences before the pandemic, you got the push to do more. If you weren’t doing it at all, you got the push to start. There’s no excuse not to tailor the customer experience anymore.

Forrester did some research on personalization that found that even companies whose personalization processes and approach are immature still see benefits. There’s an opportunity for a 33 percent increase in customer loyalty and engagement, with companies seeing as much as 11 percent reduction in marketing costs just by having a personalization strategy. Starting on the journey towards personalization drives value: Companies can see an almost 6 percent increase in sales revenue, just by personalizing experiences, even if they aren’t doing it at scale.

You’ve mentioned data silos as a hurdle. Is there anything else holding organizations back from starting with personalization?

Ablett: Organizations are struggling to know where to start. For those who have begun personalization, the challenge is that they don’t know how to scale. They need the right systems. They need new ways of thinking and operating. That is a real difficulty. It’s no longer about how to experiment with personalization, but how do you do it across all of your customer interactions, across your enterprise? That’s the real challenge.

In addition, there is a need for content velocity - having the right content, in the right format, at the right time to meet one-to-one personalization needs. So it’s not just the marketing and customer experience teams that are thinking about personalization and putting the customer in the center of all you do. It’s about infusing that way of thinking throughout the entire organization.

Hammerman: In order to do personalization at scale, companies need a real-time customer profile that harvests all digital signals from an individual consumer. And building that profile, while honoring privacy is a lot easier said than done. There are very few systems out there, built with an adherence to privacy by design, that can gather all of those digital signals together in real time and do it in a way that honors privacy.

The key is identifying individuals and layering their online behaviors into a living, breathing, real-time customer profile. This can only be done with edge computing (which brings data management and storage closer to the location its needed) because that’s what reduces the latency of experiences delivered. No longer can enterprises rely on just cloud computing, which simply centralizes everything. Now we’re talking about enabling preferences regionally and at lightning speed, because that’s what today’s customer experience means from a platform perspective.

We talked a bit about AI, but could you expand on the role it plays in personalization at scale?

Hammerman: AI allows for the processing of massive amounts of data collected on the real time customer profiles that we discussed. It also helps deliver the best content to resonate with the consumer and drive a great experience. By 2024, 75 percent of companies will shift from piloting to operationalizing AI.

Ablett: AI allows companies to meet the speed and the immediacy of customer expectations in terms of when they want these great experiences. It’s not that they want it once a week or once a month. They want it every second of every moment when they’re interacting with an organization. Marketers are compelled to move from traditional and manual segmentation to real-time segmentation and sophisticated personalization. And that need for real-time can only be delivered through using AI because it’s not possible to process the volumes of data and create actionable insights through traditional computing approaches.

Hammerman: Recently, a myriad of factors such as changing consumer expectations, dynamic privacy regulations, and browser restrictions have made third-party cookies less reliable. As a result, we’re seeing a heightened emphasis on consent-based, first-party data hubs. We can also expect more importance around identity resolution and highly personalized customer journeys. And, AI will absolutely help us to find additional insights, so that we can identify new customers that look and feel like our existing customers, even without third-party cookies.

So, we will have a mix of first-party web, app, and media data coming from behavioral interactions alongside known identifiers. That real time, instantaneous digital data, mixed with email, phone, and the attached consent to use it, is going to be key. Personalization in a cookie-less world starts with a foundational technology layer setup for identity, resolution and customer consent.

Adobe and IBM announced a partnership in 2020. Can you give us the details and expand on how this partnership will help shared clients realize the benefits of personalization at scale?

Hammerman: The intent of the alliance is to help companies deliver more personalized experiences across the customer journey, driving improved engagement, profitability, and loyalty. We will bring innovative offerings to the market by leveraging each of our organization’s depth and experience. IBM has deep relationships with CIOs and Adobe has a strong presence among CMOs—two groups that need to come together in order for personalization at scale to become a reality.

Ablett: Our partnership will help clients looking to transform experiences at an enterprise level do so more flexibly and securely, with Adobe Experience Manager certified on RedHat OpenShift, so clients can host, access and leverage their data and content in the cloud environment of their choice—on-premise or from multiple public clouds. Additionally, clients in regulated industries will be able to deploy Adobe Experience Manager while meeting the highest security and regulatory requirements with the IBM Cloud for Financial Services™. More to come on availability of this soon.

We spoke earlier about how personalization at scale is more than just implementing the right technology. It also needs to be about helping organizations change the way they work. As part of the partnership, Adobe and IBM will continue to collaborate with clients to co-create, co-design, and co-operate with them to deliver increased value. This collaboration—often as part of an IBM Garage™—helps them to get started with personalization and it helps them scale it broadly. But more importantly, it changes their way of working in order to show that their investment isn’t just a one-off implementation of a technology or one-off transformation, but it creates this continuous reinvention as they go forward.

Adobe brings the world-class technology and relationships from a marketing perspective, while IBM has decades of experience of working with clients at the technical and architectural level, and that marriage is key to end-to-end transformation while ensuring that organizations can do so in a regulatory and industry compliant manner.

Click here for the blog article about how IBM and Adobe plan to advance customer experience transformation through personalized experiences at scale, or visit: