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A Step-by-Step Approach to Personalization

Matt Burge

Solutions Director, Forum One

A step-by-step approach to personalization allows organizations to start delivering unique content sooner than later. Just like the private sector, mission-driven organizations need to ensure they are providing personalized marketing and digital experiences in order to effectively engage their online audiences. 

Most consumers today expect an online experience that’s customized. As individuals, we’re served targeted content and ads based on our previous online behavior or social media profiles (e.g., our demographics and interest areas). Whether you’re a membership-based organization that relies on annual fees or a nonprofit that relies on online giving, personalizing your digital marketing based on audience interests, location, giving history, etc., is an opportunity to have meaningful and deliberate conversations that lead to greater involvement. 

Building a personalization strategy: crawl, walk, run

If personalization is not already part of your digital strategy, we recommend taking a gradual—crawl, walk, run—approach. This allows you to successfully test and evaluate your personalization strategies and tactics.

For mission-driven organizations, the most common ways to begin personalizing content and outreach are to identify the sources where they are already gathering information or data on audiences and target personas. This includes:

  • Email databases
  • Website analytics
  • CRM systems
  • Online giving platforms

In an ideal world, organizations can be aggregating these data points to build a comprehensive marketing strategy; but in reality, most organizations aren’t fully utilizing basic data sources to make informed decisions about their marketing. Here’s how you can start small and work your way to an advanced personalization approach.

Step 1: Crawl (basic personalization)

When first starting this process, look for opportunities to segment your audiences based on the marketing vehicles you’re already using. Your email platform, for example, likely allows you to customize your messages based on:

  • Location
  • Topics of interest
  • Past actions taken
  • Other behavior history data


This stage of personalization doesn’t require automation, and you can test and gauge impact by simply monitoring opens and click-through rates.

Examples of basic personalization

  •  Identify ways to segment your email subscribers by location, area of interest, or actions or behaviors. Start by looking at the data available within your email platform. Other common tactics include adding a first name into the body of an email or the subject line to test performance.
  • Segment your audience on social media. Your social media platforms also offer ways to deliver relevant content to your audiences based on their interests, location, age, industries, and other demographics.

Step 2: Walk (intermediate personalization)

The next step to enhancing personalization is to begin testing and refining your messaging based on data and performance of your content. While your website analytics can provide this information, certain technologies can also help you automate the process and make it easier to test and adjust based on the results.  

Examples of intermediate personalization

  • Utilize website analytics to inform content creation. Your website analytics can inform the kinds of content you create, including blog posts and webpages, based on traffic and engagement data.   
  • Test different messages and calls-to-action (CTAs). Services such as Optimizely allow organizations to test different messaging and CTAs based on the journey users are taking throughout your website.

Step 3: Run (advanced personalization)

An advanced approach looks at personalization in a more holistic way by integrating all your data sources into a comprehensive platform, such as an association management system. This allows you to create a customized and meaningful digital experience for your members and supporters by delivering targeted messaging, content, and CTAs based on stored information on an individual’s interests and other demographics. This automation also helps you identify an individual in relation to your organization—for example, prospect, low-level donor, high-dollar donor—to help assess the kind of content to develop to elevate their engagement.  

Examples of advanced personalization

  • Create a comprehensive user journey based on customer data. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Association Management System (AMS) platforms allow organizations to effectively gather and maintain data on their members, donors, and/or supporters. They’re also platforms that enable you to personalize communications and to create a customized journey for your audience, so you can move them to a greater level of engagement. [Learn more: How to Choose a CRM]

Asking the right questions about personalization

Personalization can be a broad term that can be defined or described in many different ways. To help you start the process within your organization, here are a few important questions to help you narrow down the right approach.

  1. What are your goals? Start by defining the goals that you have for personalization and how creating a more customized user experience can support your organizational goals. For example, are you seeking to increase conversions or influence certain behavior changes?
  2. What data sources do you have to start personalizing your content? The easiest way to start segmenting or customizing your marketing is to look at the technologies that you’re already using. Are there gradual ways to begin testing by using email or website analytics before you embrace a more holistic approach to personalization?  
  3. How will you measure success? Identify whether there are specific metrics that will ultimately support your goals, including better engagement or more conversions in donations and members. It may also be helpful to identify what you want to test against.
  4. What time and resources can you dedicate to personalization? While your goal may be to grow your capabilities and introduce more comprehensive marketing automation, it can be resource-intensive, which can be a significant barrier to entry for many organizations. Instead, give yourself the opportunity to test and show success by using basic personalization and then working your way up.

Personalization creates connections, and so being as deliberate as you can through a gradual approach will allow you to get moving out the door quickly but also provide you with enough space to grow into a deeper, more embedded strategy. If you are looking to integrate a web personalization tool into your digital strategy, learn about Forum One’s open source website personalization tool.

Written By

Matt Burge

Solutions Director, Forum One

Don’t go it alone. We’re here to help.

Forum One works with mission-driven organizations to develop and execute personalization strategies that increase engagement and create impact. Get in touch today; we’d love to help you create genuine connections with the audiences who matter most.