Josh Forte ADT podcast cover
Episode: 11

Josh Forte - Personalization and its value in customer experience

Posted on: 29 Dec 2020
Josh Forte ADT podcast cover

Josh Forte is an e-commerce and digital marketing professional and Online Channel Manager at Comporium, a communications and home security company from South Carolina, US.

In this episode, we talk about personalization and how it factors into customer experience and digital experience in general. Josh and Tim discuss examples of personalization done right, compare different software for personalizing online experiences and go over the challenges posed to personalization by recent updates to online privacy. Finally, we discuss how the mass digitalization coupled with the explosion of e-commerce due to the pandemic has impacted the state of personalization.


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“And so, what is the future of personalization? I think it really lies with those Customer Data Platforms as a way of, you know, empowering customers to make better decisions while they also feel better about their privacy considering it’s one party that’s collecting the data, and it’s already a party they trust.”

Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.

Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thanks for tuning in. I’m joined today by Josh Forte, e-commerce professional and online channel manager at Comporium, a communications and home security company from South Carolina, US. In today’s episode, Josh and I will be discussing personalization and its importance in customer experience. Welcome, Josh, thank you for being with us today.

Josh Forte: Thank you for having me.

Tim Butara: I guess we can just dive right into the questions, and I always start with the basics, you know, to kind of provide the context for the conversation. So, the first thing I want to ask is, what is personalization and how does it factor into customer experience?

Josh Forte: Yeah, so, it’s a good question. I know it’s a buzzword that’s getting a lot of attention and so I think it definitely is an important topic in the digital space, and so the way I define personalization is really any information you present to a customer that empowers them to make better decisions. 

And so, you know, we can talk about what personalization is not or we can say, you know, this would be limited personalization, but it’s definitely not personalization, which is things you know we as marketers are accustomed to doing through email marketing, like starting with the customer’s first name and that sort of thing. 

There are elements of personalization to that, but personalization definitely goes much deeper than that, really taking advantage of any data that you understand about the customer to improve their experience and improve your own outcomes that you as a business want to achieve.

Tim Butara: Yeah, kind of including the first name and stuff like that is just the most basic level, kind of the tip of the iceberg of personalization, then you have so many other layers and kind of nuances… Yeah, it definitely seems like a very very nuanced and complex field.

Josh Forte: Yeah, you know, one thing that, you know, I think the easiest way to explain it for people who are really truly coming in with a very low understanding of personalization is really understanding what it looks like in a physical environment, right.

And so, if you’re someone who frequents a local store, let’s just use a flower shop as an example, when you come in, if you’ve been a frequent customer of theirs for a really long time and you know you’re living in a small city block or a small rural town, they probably know who you are if you’ve been there several times, and they probably know what types of flowers you’re accustomed to buying. 

They may even know your spouse’s birthday or anniversary, if they’re very smart they’re keeping track of that and maybe shooting you an email every once in a while based on those pieces of data that they know about you, right. And so I think it’s, in the digital world it’s the same thing, right. It’s you know being able to add context to your shopping journey based on what information that you know about that customer and that benefits both them and you as a business, right.

Tim Butara: Yeah that’s a very good point, and very good that you made the analogy with like in-person, physical personalization, because I think, you know, this is a podcast about digital transformation after all, so we can’t expect everybody to like completely be familiar with all aspects of the digital and, but probably, we’ve been living in the analog world for much longer than we have been in the digital, so concepts that we kind of, that we’re familiar with from there are kind of much more semantic to us because of that.

Ok, another thing that I wanted to ask you is - can you give us some examples of personalization done really well? Like, some digital experiences that were personalized in such a way that made you really enjoy them?

Josh Forte: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, some of them here, and I don’t know if you have Domino’s, we have Domino’s here in the States, a major pizza chain. And they were really, they were one of the first mainstream companies to really take advantage of personalization at scale, right. 

And so we, in the States here, they have what’s called Pizza Tracker, and Tim I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. But, you know, we used to order pizzas, and then we’d wait, you know, alright, it’s 45 minutes, they said they’d be here in 45 minutes, they’re not here yet. And then an hour goes by and you’re still, oh, where’s my pizza, you know.

And so they realized that was a pain point, a piece of friction for their customers, and so they introduced this thing called the pizza tracker. So, from the moment you actually purchase the pizza all the way until the time it reaches your door, you know exactly where your pizza is. I’ve always thought that was really cool and I think forward-thinking for Domino’s.

Tim Butara: This is kind of like taking a feature that’s quite common in something like postal service and delivery, and kind of expanding it, taking it into a totally different discipline where you wouldn’t even think to kind of leverage it. So, really cool, really great example.

Josh Forte: Yeah, that’s exactly right, we do it with our packages, right? Why not with our pizzas and our food? So, yeah, I really, I thought that was really cool. I, also of course, Spotify is a good example that people are probably familiar with in terms of basically using algorithms like Amazon to curate your individual taste in music and that sort of thing. But they are very very good at it. I don’t know if you’re a Spotify user, Tim, but the curated playlists that they create for me based on that algorithm are pretty on-point. And so I’ve really enjoyed that of course. 

Probably like the last example I’d give is what I really think is cool is Amazon Garage. And so, I don’t know if you’ve ever actually bought a car part or an auto part on Amazon, if you have a vehicle, but what’s really neat about the shopping experience on Amazon, because I buy so many parts - I try, honestly, with YouTube, I try not to go to mechanics anymore, or as little as possible, because some of the small things you can figure out how to do now yourself, and so I buy a lot of parts from Amazon. 

And what you can do on Amazon is actually enter in your car’s details, right, so the make, model, year. And what Amazon does is it actually stores it for you, so next time you go looking for windshield wipers or spark plugs or whatever it might be, Amazon knows what vehicle that you have and isn’t going to present any products that are available outside of what can work for that make and model of vehicle. 

And so that’s taking data, right, about a customer and essentially I guess curating or personalizing that experience so that all the noise, the parts that you’re used to having to sift through, just gets completely removed from the buying process. So I really enjoyed those three, I think those are personally my favorites.

Tim Butara: Yeah, those are some really great examples, Josh. I kinda wanted us to maybe mention music streaming services, like, you mentioned Spotify and I for one was really really satisfied with the YouTube recommendations, you know, I’ve discovered so much amazing music just based off autoplay or recommended music on YouTube. And also maybe some streaming services for kind of video-related content, such as Netflix, but more so, I think I enjoyed the personalized experience of IMDb even more than Netflix.

Josh Forte: Ah, tell me about that.

Tim Butara: Well it’s like, you check out a series and then you have, or a film or whatever, and you have a section that kind of, that has maybe like six or nine boxes, and it’s just like like you know the same thing Amazon would have under “customers who bought this also viewed”, but it’s, you know, if you enjoyed for example, I don’t know, Game of Thrones, then check out these series. 

And it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll find something that you’ll really enjoy, and I actually discovered some of my absolutely favorite shows with that exact feature, so I’m really really satisfied with it. But, you know, at some point you do kind of exhaust the pool of available amazing shows, so it’s not very sustainable.

Josh Forte: Well I’ll definitely have to check that out.

Tim Butara: Nice, I hope you find something really great.

Yeah, you mentioned Spotify algorithms before, and that’s the next thing that I wanted to talk about, like, how is personalization achieved? What tools, what kind of software is used to personalize digital experiences?

Josh Forte: Yeah, so in our space, in digital space, there are a couple of ways to do it - well, there’s actually many ways to do it. One of the most popular ways is through what’s called a DMP, if you’ve ever heard of that, that’s short for Data Management Platform.

And so these are companies that will take, you know, basically anonymous users and collect data about their browsing habits, sites that they’ve been to and kind of create this anonymous persona, or profile, that then advertisers can then go and buy, take advantage of and target with their products.

But there’s also another major type of platform or software that is empowering these digital experiences, and these are the ones that I’m more interested in considering GDPR is out there, the end may be near, which we’ll get into in a second. And that’s called a CDP, or short for Customer Data Platform.

And the difference between a DMP and a CDP is the way of collecting the data and the type of data that you’re collecting, right. So, the DMP is collecting data from all kinds of different sources, third-party sources, right. A CDP collects data as a first-party source. So, in other words, CDPs are used by companies who already have existing relationships with customers, and then use that data that you have access, or that you have privilege to having by way of simply being someone that the customer wants to do business with, and then using that data to personalize experiences as well.

And so that’s something that, you know, I think the future is going to be, you know, the CDP or whatever you want to call it, any kind of mechanism, you know, you can do these kinds of things through CRMs and other methods as well, but I think customers are going to be much more comfortable with that method of giving themselves up to personalization rather than the DMP route.

I think, obviously there are good things DMPs are doing, will continue to do; we don’t have as much legislation and law around data privacy as, say, Europe does. But that’s certainly, what’s happening in Europe will certainly be moving to the United States, I’m sure of it.

And so, what is the future of personalization? I think it really lies with those Customer Data Platforms as a way of, you know, empowering customers to make better decisions while they also feel better about their privacy considering it’s one party that’s collecting the data, and it’s already a party they trust.

Tim Butara: I think I have a question lined up for later in which we’ll dive even deeper into the future of personalization and things like GDPR, privacy restrictions. But yeah, it’s really good that you brought this up and brought up the CDP as kind of the first step into the future of personalization, especially as kind of the US also adopts stricter privacy regulations, and we’re already seeing it happen with… what’s the name of the law in California, CCPA or something like that? Did I get that right?

Josh Forte: I don’t know the exact law, but I know which one you’re referring to.

Tim Butara: Yeah, and it’s probably, I mean, California is a pretty influential state in the US, so probably if California is an early adopter of something that probably implies that, you know, this will be adopted even more throughout the whole country and throughout the whole continent, probably.

Josh Forte: I think so.

Tim Butara: Ok, so let’s talk more about data, which is what makes personalization possible as we just pointed. How does- how to use data to create personalized experiences? What are some best practices and kind of main considerations here?

Josh Forte: Yeah, you know, it’s actually, when you boil it down, it’s really not that complicated, right. So I can speak to maybe more of how we use data at Comporium to personalize these experiences.

So at Comporium, we’re not unlike a regular communications service provider you might find in Europe or in the States that are bigger, like Comcast or Spectrum, Rogers in Canada, where we sell several different communication products - so, phone, TV, internet and of course smart home security.

And so it’s really important to know on a basic level what the customer profile is at Comporium in terms of what products they subscribe to, right, and so if we’re going to advertise to a segment of customers, you know if we’re going to, if we want to market our internet products and the customer already has internet, well, clearly we don’t need to speak to that customer, right?

So on its most basic fundamental level, that is some element of personalization, right, being marketed a product that you don’t yet have, right, and we know that about you because you’re a customer of ours. 

There are other things that we’d like to be doing from a personalization standpoint as well and things that I think that will certainly improve customer experiences at Comporium. We all deal with, as consumers, you know, outages by our service providers from time to time, sometimes through reasons that aren’t ours. Or maybe it’s, you know, we’re experiencing some kind of issue at home or our broadband is down and we don’t know why.

And so one example that I like to give, at least internally when we start talking about really the power of using data, like to personalize experiences to delight customers, one example I like to give is this idea of, you know, when your internet goes down, we have a software platform that monitors cable modem statuses, right, up and down, do you have broadband, do you not. 

That’s a piece of data that sits in a silo today, right, but it doesn’t need to. Through APIs and other things we can access these little pockets of data that definitely can empower a lot better experiences. So, in this example, what we have found in our tech support circles is that sometimes the wireless interference or whatever it might be in the home, a simple reboot will actually just start everything back up, right.

And so, say Tim is at work at his office, which I guess isn’t normal or typical anymore in the age of Covid, but say he’s at the office and we know that his broadband just went down, right. And we know, through data, that the majority of these experiences or these connections, if you simply reboot the modem, can fix the whole problem. 

So why don’t we just go ahead and send an email to Tim, in the body of the email ask Tim if it would be okay if we rebooted his modem by the simple click of a CTA button. He goes, of course, click the CTA button, everything, you know, the modem reboots at home and then by the time he gets home, he doesn’t have that negative customer experience when he just wants to get on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever - or IMDb in your case to search for a movie, because his internet is now back up and live.

And so those are little data points all across some of these different siloed platforms that we can use at our advantage and at the customer’s advantage, so he has a delightful experience in troubleshooting his internet versus coming home and then having to, you know, whether it’s get on the phone with tech support, something that’s just going to be an inconvenience for that customer.

Tim Butara: Yeah and it actually, it doesn’t just eliminate the bad experience, it actually turns it, it turns the thing completely around and turns the bad experience into a delightful experience, as you put it Josh, and that’s why I really love this example.

Josh Forte: Yeah, and that’s the power of personalization, right? So it’s not just so we can use customer data to sell them more products, right, that’s part of it, right, when we can use personalization to right fit customers with products that they want to buy as e-commerce practitioners. 

But it’s also delighting the customer in other ways that don’t have anything to do with sales, whether it’s customer service or experience or that sort of thing, or in this case, really using that as an opportunity to, what could go south and create this bad experience for this customer in the overall customer experience rating in that customer’s mind about how much they’re enjoying doing business with you as a brand and then completely, like you said, flipping it into a positive experience.

And what I think that does, is it goes even beyond that, just delighting the customer and being convenient, into what I think the value of personalization gives that hasn’t been talked about a lot, which is “Wow, this customer is actually smart, right, they know things that are going to help me enjoy their service better”.

And so whenever you’re employing data in a way that helps people in ways that they never thought you could, I think it lends a little bit of credibility to, like, oh I’m doing business with somebody who really understands this, and I think there is value there that gets added to the brand, right, and the brand scorecard overall, that it’s going to create a lot more longevity, lifetime value and that sort of thing.

Tim Butara: Yeah, very very good points. It’s kind of playing not just on the immediate benefit, but kind of, kind of understanding the long-term potential benefits of building kind of-- it’s about building relationships, you know, it’s not just about this specific touchpoint or this specific interaction, but kind of, you know, we want us as a brand and our customers as the customers and like buyers of our brand, or buyers of our services, we want us to have a good relationship, we want us to be… This is maybe going to come off right, but we want us to be friends in quotation marks, you know.

Josh Forte: Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly right. That makes a lot of sense. It creates this, personalization creates this experience that takes this, like a brand as this kind of non-human thing and makes it human.

Tim Butara: Yeah that’s the key point here I think Josh, it’s kind of showing that it’s not just mechanical, artificial, automated, but that there’s like actual thought and effort, and like kind of genuine care for the other person, you know. Because even though the aim is to drive revenue, to grow as a business, to scale, but you know, if this is done in such a way that the customer also benefits greatly from, not just in minor ways, but significantly, in maybe not just in their professional but also in their personal lives, in all aspects of their lives, then why not have that win-win, right?

Josh Forte: 100 percent.

Tim Butara: Awesome. So, now I want to kind of return to the shadow side. And I want to discuss-- yeah, we started talking about GDPR and privacy, and I wanted to discuss, like, what challenges do you expect these new privacy restrictions to pose online personalization? In particular what I really want to mention is the impending death of third-party cookies and like what are some next steps from there.

Josh Forte: Well, yeah, so I kind of stole my thunder a little bit there with talking about DMPs versus CDPs and the differences between the two, so we won’t hash that back out. But I think, you know, DMPs really do rely on those third-party cookies. I mean they really do, I mean that is their lifeblood to create these personas and these profiles. And, you know, I think the road ahead for them is going to be very tough.

I think, you know, as a marketer who understands DMPs and data and the role it plays, you know, it’s hard for me to say that because I get a lot of value out of sharing data, right, we all do. When we share data we get back these great experiences, brands know more about us, they can help us save passwords and all the things that make browsing the web convenient. 

So I don’t, I think those things are important, I think honestly I think there’s going to be a subset of people who, you know, whatever it looks like, whatever the legislation looks like, if it’s going to be like, ok, well if you collect data you just have to make it known, or it has to be more of an opt-in kind of thing, I think there’s going to be a large subset of people who at least understand data and digital and are willing to live with the privacy risk that come with making browsing the web and digitally engaging more convenient.

So I think that there is, my opinion is there’s going to be a subset of people that willingly opt in for these kinds of experiences. But I think it’s a tough road because, you know, especially when you talk about documentaries coming out like the Social Dilemma, I don’t know if you’ve seen that Tim on Netflix--

Tim Butara: I actually just watched it yesterday, so, yeah.

Josh Forte: Oh, maybe in advance of the podcast, yeah. So we could probably talk for 30 minutes just on that and how digital products are being built to be somewhat addictive. But I think that’s where CDPs are really in a good position, because now you’ve moved from this like, hey I don’t even know you business that’s collecting my data to like, ok, if you’re doing business with a brand you already trust and they make it very clear that we’re not sharing your data, we have no intention of ever sharing your data, that the data that we use is going to only be about making your experiences with our brand more impactful and powerful and convenient. I think that positions them particularly well. I don’t really operate on the more of the digital marketing advertising side of things, so I probably don’t have as much to offer there, but that’s my 2 cents for what it’s worth.

Tim Butara: Yeah I think one of the key things here is about transparency, I think that that’s like one of the factors that you were kind of getting to. So, knowing how this data will be collected, knowing how it will be shared - or even better, how it won’t be shared - and knowing what it will be used for, and I think probably for companies it’s also-- I mean, if somebody, on the basis of all this, if somebody is willingly sharing their data with you, that’s even better for you, right, it’s safer for you, you don’t have to-- I mean, you kind of have their consent, it’s better for you and it’s better for them. 

You know that, if people willingly give their consent to such things, even with very strict restrictions, that probably means that they’re very open to personalization and to kind of having the tradeoff between their privacy and beneficial experiences on the web. And it’s a win-win, and as you said, it’s probably a specific subset of people with whom it will be even easier to make personalized experiences because of these restrictions. 

Josh Forte: Yeah. I agree 100 percent.

Tim Butara: Nice, awesome. And another thing that I wanted to talk about before we kind of conclude the episode, and that’s also related to what we’ve been seeing this year in the digital and basically in every aspect of our lives. And, you know, with Covid, with the lockdown, with us being confined to our homes, we’ve seen a huge explosion in e-commerce and with that also digital customer experience. How would you say that this has impacted personalization this year? Like are there any special considerations and key lessons that we’ve learned from this whole Covid situation?

Josh Forte: Yeah, I think right off the bat, I was reading something by McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, they predicted that we have accelerated digital transformation by eight years in the short time we’ve been dealing with Covid this year. And that’s quite amazing. And so I think, you know, it really, the personalization piece, you know, where physical stores and brands have been investing in personalization for a while, right, and so when you’re moving from physical into digital, people are going to expect the same experiences, so I think that’s part of it.

I think one thing that I’m very keen on, keened in on is the different types of demographic profiles now coming into your digital experiences because they don’t have the ability to interact with you as a brand in any other way, and being sensitive to people from different backgrounds who may not have, you know, thought of digital as their first line of doing business with a brand, now all of a sudden are forced or thrust into having to do that, and being sensitive to that. 

So, you know, more elderly folks coming from walking into a physical location, in our case a physical branch, into enter our website, and making sure that these experiences are truly optimized for all kinds of different kind of tech-savvy backgrounds, right, so that’s very important.

I think what’s really exciting is, because you have all of these people moving online, all of a sudden there is an influx of volume of data, right. And so, as someone who works in digital analytics and digital space, that really excites me, right, because now your sample sizes are growing larger, which should mean that you’re able to understand your customers a lot better and their needs and what they want and that sort of thing.

So, you know, I think those are really the two things for me. This is a new world, it’s not like-- we’ve let the genie out of the bottle now, there’s no going back, right. And so I think privacy is going to be one huge story that comes out of this, more people moving online and that sort of thing. 

And with all the things that we’ve been talking about and understanding how customers want to interact with brands and how comfortable they are with the amount of data that is being collected on them and shared, I think all of those things are going to start coming to a head, because we’ve accelerated this so quickly that we almost-- it’s almost like we haven’t had enough time to really, like usually when you grow you’re planning for growth, right, but now the growth just happened and the planning we’re trying to catch up. 

And so I think, you know, it’s going to change a lot for a lot of different brands, where you know, especially those brands that haven’t really embraced digital transformation. Luckily, we were in a position where we had really started seriously investing in our digital channels within about three years, and so, or three years ago. And I feel for those brands that haven’t been investing as much in those digital transformation projects that are trying to catch up now with the influx of people wanting to do business with them in different ways.

Tim Butara: Oh thanks Josh, those were some really key insights right there at the end, I’m really happy that we get to finish the episode on such a strong note. It’s been a really really great conversation, I really enjoyed speaking with you today. Just before we finish, if people want to reach out to you or learn more about you, what’s the best place where they can do that?

Josh Forte: Yeah I’m just on LinkedIn, I don’t have a website. Josh, J-O-S-H, last name is Forte, F-O-R-T-E, and you can do a search and find me on LinkedIn. And, Tim, I’ll say I really enjoyed talking with you too, I really enjoy talking with like-minded practitioners and so I could do this for hours.

Tim Butara: Yeah, I think, as you said, we could probably just talk about The Social Dilemma for upwards of an hour now and, I mean, we can still do that sometime, right?

Josh Forte: For sure, absolutely. Let’s definitely do it.

Tim Butara: Ok, I’ll hold your word for that.

Josh Forte: Ok.

Tim Butara: Thanks again Josh for this really great conversation. And to our listeners: that’s all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.

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