November 03, 2016 by Michael Greenberg

The Basics of Sitecore Personalization

There are thousands of companies using Sitecore today, most with plans to implement personalization.  In talking to many of these companies, we find a lot of confusion over how to approach Sitecore’s personalization capabilities.  So we wanted to walk through the basics and terms to help users better understand how to approach the platform.

Sitecore has built seven powerful and interrelated systems for improving website performance, implementing website personalization and running marketing automation.  Many users think of these as one big system, so breaking Sitecore down into these separate capabilities helps us explain how it all works together.

Sitecore's Seven Systems

 

The first is the Experience Profile, a comprehensive visitor profile that grows more detailed over time.  The Experience Profile is a combination of behavioral data (what the visitor has done) and attribute data (how we can describe aspects of the visitor).   Behavioral data examples include pages visited, forms filled out, emails clicked, events attended and actions taken.  Attribute data includes gender, email address, location, and other descriptive data, some of which typically comes from a central CRM system (or social sources) once a visitor is identified.  Some attribute data attached to the Experience Profile is created by Sitecore’s other engines detailed below, such as Engagement Value and any Patterns a visitor has matched.

Sitecore users can examine individual profiles to see the data available by visitor via the Launch Pad within the platform.

The second is the Experience Database, a scalable MongoDB database of activity.  Introduced in Sitecore 7.5, the xDB keeps track of all behavior by an individual visitor.  It is this data that is used in all of the calculations by the other systems and all analytics.  Sitecore has made the xDB essentially invisible to the business user through other systems that leverage it.  So unless you are a developer (and really only if you are a database administrator), you can pretty much forget it exists other than paying the storage bills.

The third is the real-time profiling engine, an intuitive system for developing classification rules around anonymous customers based on web behavior.  This system is simple on the surface, but has tremendous depth for representing visitor behavior patterns in useful ways.  We’ll talk at length about this in another post, but the basics are as follows.  The system scores visitors across a number of attributes (Profile Keys) based on the content they click on or view.  Profile Cards assign the values of those attributes to pages and components.  Visitors’ scores are compared to Pattern Cards to classify them into groups.  Once a visitor matches a Pattern Card, their Experience Profile is updated to include the group defined by the Pattern Card.  The important takeaway is this system is a classification engine for anonymous users and is used in personalization, but is not the personalization engine itself.

The fourth is in-session personalization (managed via the Rule Set Editor), which powers site personalization on the fly. This is another powerful system, enabling dynamic content using business rules. The system runs best using profiling, but can be defined using other, more standard business rules. Again, the important takeaway is the Rule Set Editor can define personalization rules without using the profiling engine.

 

The fifth is the Engagement Plan capability, which is a powerful marketing automation tool.  It looks similar to the Personalization Rules Engine, but runs separately.  Engagement Plans are scripted paths of engagement, allowing marketers to automate messages and other actions based on the attributes, actions and timing of visitor behavior.  An important point is Engagement Plans and the Personalization Rules Engine can influence each other – you can a) use attributes of engagement Plan statistics in personalization rules, while b) creating actions in engagement plans that change profiles, in turn impacting personalization rules.

The sixth is the Engagement Value Points system, which scores visitors based on the pages they visit and the actions they take.  These values can be used in the Personalization rules engine, the Engagement Plan engine, are used for evaluating A/B and other testing scenarios, and help determine the values in the Path Analyzer.  The combination of Engagement Values and the Path Analyzer can be transformative in your ability to optimize your site.  

The seventh is the List Manager, which puts classic list management tools on top of Sitecore’s rules-based approach to marketing. Many marketers prefer to work with lists, especially when messaging needs to be coordinated with other marketing efforts.  The list system allows marketers to create snapshots of groups of visitors and use them in Engagement Plans and email, or export them to other applications.  And since they can be used in the Rule Set Editor, they can also be part of personalization rules. All of this assumes the core capability of Sitecore – content management – is in place, of course.

Putting It All Together

Seven separate powerful systems working together doesn’t fit neatly into a diagram.  As a marketer using Sitecore, you will need to be able to map your needs onto these systems.  Personalized path based on landing page for a new visitor via paid search?  You’ll use at least 6 systems.  Homepage content based on email click-throughs?  Four, maybe five systems depending on other factors.  But at least now you should be able to read other content around Sitecore personalization and understand the systems that are enabling it.

We live for this stuff.  If you have a question or just want to talk to someone who knows the difference between EXM and xDB, give us a shout.

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