What the public sector needs to know about personalization

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

What the public sector needs to know about personalization

Personalization -- the concept of crafting a customized experience based on context and user behavior -- has long been the talk of the retail industry. But for the public sector, leaders are just starting to realize its potential --  from giving constituents greater access to the information they need to speeding up and streamlining government processes.

The technology is finally available to make personalization a reality, and many leaders at the municipal, state and federal level may want to implement this technology immediately. But like any other technology, using personalization software takes strategy and vision. Before diving in, government IT managers should keep several things in mind.

1. No two audiences are created equal

Taking small, deliberate steps towards a stronger understanding of users is essential, and one of the biggest personalization pitfalls is jumping in without a concrete plan.

Ultimately, the goal of a successful personalization is to serve the target audience the information they need, rather than making them dig around a website for it. But because no two target audiences are identical, personalization strategies should be tailored to each audience, which will require a research phase. Research will give officials a better understanding of their constituencies and validate assumptions about each audience’s behavior and needs. Some initial considerations would be determining whether the user is a first-time visitor and the segments of the  constituency the agency is trying to reach. Having a data-driven foundation helps determine the behaviors and actions the personalization is intended to encourage, and creating a plan is essential for guiding those users to the places that serve them best.

2. Personalization isn’t a “set it and forget it” strategy

There are two key factors that impact personalization: The organization’s specific goals and how customers interact with the organization. Both should be taken into account at all times.  Personalization is also iterative, evolving alongside a company’s goals. The more an agency understands about customer interactions, the more easily it can refine its goals to take advantage of that understanding. Many agencies don’t realize that they can interpret user data collected over multiple visits and sessions, cross reference that data then pivot and adapt to better meet the needs of a given audience.

For example, imagine I’m sitting at work, entering information on a form on a government site. At the end of the day, I close my computer and board the train where I work on the form from my phone. When I get home, I finish entering that information from my tablet. When personalization is working properly, all of my interactions can merge into a single profile, letting me continue the form entry I started in the office.

An agency isn’t going to get a full picture of a user from one visit. Over time, however, it becomes clearer what users are interested in and what platforms they use, so content can be changed to better optimize those interactions.

The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of phone calls or in-person visits customers must make to apply for a benefit or comply with a regulation, and it can take some trial and error to set the right calls to action. Personalization is a combination of qualitative and quantitative know-how -- the right technology, coupled with the right questions to deliver the best possible user experience.

3. Citizen service is an untapped opportunity

Use cases for personalization run the gamut from the everyday tasks to extreme scenarios, but all  examples have one thing in common: they allow public sector agencies to streamline government-related processes that people need it most.

Imagine a new business owner in the Washington, D.C., area who is applying for  licenses and permits. She’s likely expects to spending a lot of time clicking around a website, hunting down the information she needs and the forms that must be filed. Now imagine she goes to business.dc.gov and is greeted with a personalized experience that points her in the proper direction based on her location, previous behavior and a few simple questions. By determining whether business owners need details for a restaurant, daycare or other company, government can free up their time to grow their business.

Personalization’s public service power doesn’t stop there. It can also help in the event of a natural disaster. Imagine if ready.gov incorporated geolocation to automatically offer key information, providing citizens who need those resources with a simple and fast way to get what they’re looking for. It’s possible with the right personalization strategy.

4. Transparency is key, and users need the option to opt out

In some cases and for some people, personalization doesn’t have positive associations. For this reason, it’s essential to clearly communicate the agency’s approach to personalization and offer users the chance to opt out of their information being used to create a more targeted experience.

Although executive branch approval is required to permit collection of personally identifiable information such as login details and email addresses, the benefits of personalization can often be most impactful in simpler ways -- blending into the background and complementing a user’s existing site browsing experience.

5. Personalization in the public sector can be an uphill battle

Personalization requires progressive thinking,  an understanding of the government risks and a clear sense of the business value. Often, an organization needs a squeaky wheel to motivate teams to act. One of the best ways to do this is driving home the measurable business value. Whether it’s reducing the number of calls that come into a service center, tracking food stamps or aiding business license registration, success must be quantifiable.

Once an agency decides on a personalization strategy, it must find staff or a partner with experience in both the government sector and digital marketing technologies -- someone who understands laws around privacy and can work with government leadership.

The benefits of personalization in the public sector are clear. A strategy that acknowledges both the challenges and possibilities will ensure users are met with an experience that makes their interactions with government agencies far better.

About the Author

Dan Katz is technical director for the public sector at Acquia.

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