The Homepage is Dead: A Story of Website Personalization

Posted by cara.harshman

In 1998, Jeff Bezos had a vision for the Internet. At that time he was four years into building Amazon. It was taking off as a humongous online emporium of books and music. In an interview with the Washington Post that year, Bezos made a visionary statement about the web. “If we have 4.5 million customers, we shouldn’t have one store. We should have 4.5 million stores,” he said.

Fast-forward 19 years and here we are in 2017. My Amazon homepage is extremely personalized to me. (In August it was showing me glow sticks and solar-powered lamps. It clearly knew I was going to Burning Man.)

Bezos’ vision is reality for Amazon.com and many more e-commerce sites. At this point, personalized product recommendations are table stakes for online retail. But we haven’t seen personalization become as popular across the rest of the non-retail web. Most businesses have one version of the homepage that is supposed to cater to all different sorts of people. The sites still say, “come one, come all!”

This is troubling. Marketers spend so much time and energy developing personas and messaging for the myriad audiences we want to turn into customers. But it usually stops there. It’s time we start extending this persona-driven, personalized marketing to our websites, and specifically the homepage. The homepage is the proverbial front door of our brands; often a landing page, it’s the first page you’ll go to find out who a company is and what it does.

As marketers, it’s our job to crack open the black box on how to do things that may seem like a mystery. SEO? Moz takes care of that one. Website personalization is another one of those mysteries. What are the problems you need to work through to get it done? How much does it cost? How valuable is it?

I want to help bust open that black box by sharing first-hand experience personalizing Optimizely.com. In my time on the marketing team there, we redesigned the homepage. We went from one average best homepage to 26 different versions of the homepage uniquely personalized to different visitors. Let’s talk about why we did it, what we did, and how it all performed (because of course we measured it).

The average best version of our homepage.

Homepage personalized for visitors from Target.

Homepage personalized for visitors from the travel industry.

Homepage personalized for visitors browsing optimizely.com late night.

Homepage personalized for visitors from Microsoft.

Why invest in website personalization?

We redesigned and personalized the homepage for three reasons:

  1. To get closer to a global maximum. We had reached a local maximum on our current site. After four years of iteration and conversion optimization, we had achieved the best possible version of the existing design. New A/B tests on the page returned insignificant results. We had to design a radically different site to get closer to the global maximum with higher conversion rates and engagement. In other words, we were climbing a mountain and had reached a small hill, but our goal was to summit the peak.
  2. To increase lead quality. Our existing homepage was filling the sales funnel with lots of not-so-great leads. Often, people wound up in a conversation with a sales-human who were not sufficiently educated about what Optimizely had to offer. Not a good situation for the lead or the sales-human. We had to redesign the experience so that folks understood our value.
  3. To support account-based marketing (ABM). ABM is an approach to marketing and selling that deliberately aligns sales and marketing around a list of important accounts and delivers targeted campaigns to engage those accounts. The goal is to be highly intentional with who you sell to and nurturing those interactions with personalized content. This personalization campaign was intended to drive engagement with our target accounts.

What to personalize and for whom?

After knowing why we were personalizing, the next question becomes what are we personalizing and for whom? The “for whom” part of this question was our starting place. It’s the best starting point for any personalization campaign. You must define your audience (aka who you’re personalizing for) before you decide on the experience (aka what you’re going to show them).

Defining your audiences takes time and is a worthy investment because it’s the foundation of the campaign. We came up with a few traits for what makes a “good” audience:

  • It should be identifiable. You should have a way to technically identify the thing that makes a visitor part of a specific audience.
  • It should be valuable. Measured either in volume or strategic importance, the audiences should be worth something. Because of our account based marketing approach, some of our audiences consist of one company, but that company has humongous value to us.
  • It should be differentiated enough to receive unique experiences. Your audiences should be distinguished enough to receive a unique experience.

With those traits in mind, you can define audiences across two axes: behavioral/what a visitor does and demographic/who a visitor is.

For our homepage campaign we chose to create unique experiences for these audiences:

  • Named accounts: Current and prospective customers that are part of a target account list. We defined this by uploading a list into Optimizely and using Demandbase to identify the IP address of visitors coming from those companies.
  • Industries: Visitors from target verticals which have strong use cases for A/B testing and personalization. We used Demandbase data for this as well, and CRM data.
  • Geography: Is the visitor from North America or Europe or APAC and so on. For geography we used Optimizely targeting abilities.
  • Customers: Visitors who are known Optimizely customers. We defined customers by identifying visitors who had an Optimizely login cookie on their browser.

2016-02-03 12.08.22.jpgA wireframe drawing of the new site with ample space for personalized content.

  • Engaged visitors: Return visitors who have engaged with one or more of Optimizely’s digital properties in the past (blog, website, community, knowledge base, etc.). We executed this with behavioral targeting through Optimizely.

Once you have audiences defined — and don’t be surprised if this takes a while — you are ready to dissect your page and identify the places you want to personalize.

Sidenote: We had to redesign the homepage in order to make space for content that could be personalized. Take a look at the original site; you can see that there’s hardly anything on the page, no content to personalize! In order to do website personalization, you need ample real estate to create personalized experiences.

How did personalization perform?

This personalization campaign was, importantly, an A/B test: 50% of homepage visitors saw the old version, and 50% saw a personalized one. Personalization is a hypothesis like any other design/functionality change and should be treated with similar rigor as A/B testing. You want to know that the personalization is improving the experience/conversion rate/metrics, not decreasing them.

Here’s the A and B:

In the test we measured lead conversion rate, accounts created, lead qualification rate, and softer anecdotal data like how it helped our sales team in conversations and how our customers reacted to it.

http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Let’s start with the qualitative data. In short, people loved the new homepage. They even tweeted about it and sent emails to our team. If your homepage design is worth tweeting about, that’s either a fantastic or a horrible sign. We were glad that it was all positive sentiment.

Quantitatively, the new individualized homepage experience performed better than the original.

Overall, we saw a:

  • 1.5% increase in engagement
  • 113% increase in conversions to Solutions page
  • 117% increase in conversions on “Test it Out” CTA to start account creation process

The personalized site did not affect lead conversion rate immediately. Like most online businesses, Optimizely is constantly striving to improve conversion rate (for the right leads, of course). While this new personalized homepage experience is not immediately improving lead quality, the team were confident enough in the results — and in the future optimization opportunity — to move 100% of traffic to the new homepage experiences.

What’s next?

Optimizely successfully killed THE homepage, or rather the single version of the homepage for everyone. They now have a new baseline of personalized homepages to optimize from. Like it goes with A/B testing, one test just leads to another; we always learn something, whether the test wins, loses, or is inconclusive.

The homepage was the tip of the iceberg with personalization. Since launching the homepage, Optimizely has used personalization to add content recommendations on the blog, to run a highly targeted Apple Watch campaign to target accounts (an effective ABM campaign), and to surface relevant product information to potential customers.

The web Jeff Bezos imagined in 1998 has become reality and the opportunities to use personalization to design better web experiences just continue to grow.

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