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Interview with Cara Harshman of Optimizely on Online Personalization

Adam Dince
Interview with Cara Harshman of Optimizely on Online Personalization

When I moved from Brooklyn to Queens back in 2010, I lived in an apartment across the street from “The Irish Cottage,” a neighborhood Irish Pub in Forest Hills.

After a few visits, the staff knew me by name, knew my schedule and often times had my drink ready for me when I arrived. Additionally, since the bartenders knew my taste, they ALWAYS offered fantastic cocktail recommendations.

I felt important. Like The Irish Cottage cared about me as a person and a patron. And because I felt important to them, I became a regular — as did many in the neighborhood.

Seems like basic business 101, right? All businesses should be creating one-to-one personalized relationships with customers both offline and online.

What if we could personalize our own web properties for our customers? What if all of our online experiences were personalized and tailored to fit our individual customer needs? What if our websites made it easy for customers to QUICKLY find what they were looking for?

The good news is, much of this is already possible!

At this year’s MozCon, I had the pleasure of watching Cara Harshman, Optimizely’s Content Marketing Manager and Blog Editor, present, “Online Personalization That Actually Works.” For me, Cara’s session was the best 45 minutes I’ve spent at a marketing conference in a long, long, time.


Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Cara about online personalization and am thrilled to be able to share her wisdom with you.

Question: What does online personalization mean to you?

Answer: To me, online personalization means extending the way we operate as humans in real life to the way we operate our websites. It’s about using what you know about someone to deliver a more relevant experience.

We run into personalization online all the time. Retargeted ads and personalized emails are two examples. But until recently, there’s been a big disconnect between these channels and the on-site experience where the email and the ad is personal to me, Cara, but the website is generic.

To me, online personalization today means connecting all of these channels to create a truly holistically personalized experience.

Q: Can you provide an example of a top-notch personalization campaign?

A: Absolutely. So, my favorite personalization campaigns to talk about are ones where businesses vastly improve their return on investment in paid advertising by making small changes to landing pages. These are such clear wins and tactics I think all businesses should be trying.

My top-notch example is from a flash vacation-deals site called Secret Escapes. Here’s the situation: AdWords is a big line item in their marketing budget. Naturally, they bid on all sorts of vacation and travel keywords, and their SEM ads have solid CTRs.


And all of those clicks on these various ads direct to this beautiful landing page.


The challenge they wanted to solve was, How do they make more return on investment in their AdWords spend? Increasing the conversion rate on the landing page is one way; convert more of the traffic you’re paying for. Simple.

So the man who leads optimization there made a few hypotheses on how to increase conversion rate and ran an experiment. He tested the original experience (above) where all paid traffic saw the same page with headline, “Save up to 70% on luxury hotels and holidays,” no matter which ad was clicked on against a new landing page that dynamically changed the text to match the search ad.


For example, if someone searched “Spa Breaks,” then the headline would say Spa Breaks and the background image would be a beautiful spa. In other words, in the variation, the landing page is symmetric with the search term. This did really well for them.

Making the messaging and imagery between the ad and the landing page symmetric increased conversions by 32%! This is a clear example of increasing ROI. They aren’t spending a penny more on AdWords, and they’re getting more value from it. Also, their Quality Score probably increases because more people are converting on the page. Big win. I wrote an in-depth blog post about it for those who want to learn more.

Q: What are some cool ways technology allows online personalization?

A: Technology for online personalization is extremely cool because it allows us to detect information about visitors and deliver the personalized experience in real time. There are three main types of information technology can help detect:

  1. Context – The status of a visitor, i.e. new vs. returning, browsing from a desktop or a mobile phone, logged in or logged out
  2. Demographics – Who the visitor is, i.e. a male or female, job title, browsing location, industry vertical
  3. Behavior — What the visitor has done, i.e. added something to cart, viewed three articles, submitted a support ticket

The opportunities with technology to afford personalization are quite limitless. Take the weather for instance. You can use a tool like Skymosity to personalize the web experience for a visitor based on whether it’s a sunny or rainy day.

Q: Are there any helpful resources to help marketers get up-to-speed on website personalization?

A: To be honest, the resource landscape for website personalization is pretty sparse right now. I am actually working on a long-form piece explaining it. But there are a few resources out there I recommend:

  1. "Personalization: explaining the word no one can stop saying" and "4 things you should know about personalization the team" at Clearhead, a great optimization agency
  2. "Approaching Content Strategy for Personalized Websites" by Colin Egan on A List Apart’s blog
  3. The personalization content my team and I are writing about on the Optimizely blog
  4. My slide deck about personalization from MozCon 2015.

Q: If you’re a small business with a limited budget or looking to learn about online personalization by testing it on a WordPress Site, are there any low-cost tools you’d recommend?

A: I’d recommend Optimizely because it’s not just low-cost, it’s free! You can use Optimizely to target different experiences to visitors based on a variety of characteristics such as the browser they’re using, the referral URL that brought them to the site, different query parameters and traffic source.

Q: Are there any downsides to online personalization?

A: I would say that there are no inherent downsides to online personalization, simply that the power of personalization is largely in how you wield it. You can say this about most software out there. I think people can avoid downsides of personalization in two ways:

  1. Remember that personalization is a hypothesis. Personal is not always better. I’ve seen many examples where a changing a headline based on the state someone is visiting from performs worse than the generic version. I’ve also seen geographic targeting work. It’s not a guarantee.
  2. Stick to your morals as a human. People do not want to be spied on. So it might not be a good idea to be so blatant with some of your personalized content. Do deliver personalized content because it’s valuable to your customer. Do not deliver personalized content for the sake of being personalized.

Q: Optimizely has online personalization functionality in beta right now. What are the advantages of using Optimizely over other platforms?

A: Our team is approaching personalization with a similar mindset of how we approached our first product, A/B testing, to make the power of personalization more accessible and usable for everyone. So one advantage over other platforms is speed and agility — you can implement it visually, rapidly deploy personalized experiences and measure the impact of those experiences.

Another one is the ecosystem of technology integrations. Optimizely integrates with 30+ different technologies so you can take action on all of the data you’re collecting, trying to do away with data silos.

Q: Any parting words?

A: Online personalization is a really exciting frontier and it’s a hypothesis! Don’t assume personal is always better — always measure. I hope people who do dabble or invest in personalization write about what they learn so we can all get collectively better at delivering amazing experiences to people online.

Any questions about A/B testing or personalization? Leave them in the comments!

Thanks, Cara!

Header image credit: Canva & Pixabay

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Adam Dince is Director of Earned Media at Deluxe Corp. You can find him on Twitter and his website. His last article for SEMrush was "What I Learned About Content Strategy Through Twitter Chats."
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