Content personalisation is like a Food Network show: Marketers try to cook up a delectable dish using specific ingredients to delight a panel of tough customers. Like many cooking challenge competitors, few marketers have truly mastered the art form. Recent surveys found that 85% of marketers use personalisation, but most of them said those efforts aren’t working. Clearly, there is room for improvement.

In reality, few experiences are ever truly personal. Personalisation is, at its heart, simply tailoring a combination of specific messaging and content from a predefined menu. We can curate experiences that include assets and messaging relevant to you, but it’s not that different from your favourite pizza. You enjoy it because it’s exactly what you like, but even the most peculiar pizza pairing has an audience of more than one.

Trying to personalise every single interaction from the start is a fool’s errand. At a certain point, we’re generalising to an audience rather than an individual. Marketing executives should start small but work toward a goal of creating comprehensive buyer personas to deliver the most relevant content at the most useful time. Before you can make the most of personas, it’s important to be realistic about what you’re trying to accomplish.

When good personalisation goes bad

If you have more than one audience, personalisation admittedly makes sense. After all, speaking to everyone results in speaking to no one.

Consider the case of universities, which have many different audiences: prospective students, current students, parents, staff, and alumni. These groups might have some overlap, but they assuredly have different core concerns and needs. Content designed to spur a high-consideration decision like this by prospective students would be different from anything meant to appeal to parents, current students, or alumni.

But consumers also want to be recognised as individuals. A 2016 study found that 75% of people would rather buy products or services from companies that make personalised recommendations. With that in mind, we need to be careful of delivering too much, too soon.

It’s important to deliver relevance and not resort to cheap personalisation tricks. Instead of cramming a name into an email and calling it a day, find ways to provide real value by offering relevant content based around a narrative. Make the experience feel like a conversation rather than a random act of marketing, mapping content accordingly (more on that below).

A fresh take on personalisation

The concept of personalisation is worthwhile, but you must think holistically and strategically to ensure you don’t fall prey to ephemeral tactics.

Marketers should start by getting real with persona creation by talking to customers, customer service and sales reps, and people who have decided not to be customers. Adele Revella’s book “Buyer Personas” provides an excellent framework for this process.

Instead of focusing solely on conversion, consider every stage of the process of buying. Use content consumption patterns to infer where people might be in their process and assess their understanding of the problems they want to solve.

If the buyer’s journey is a series of questions that must be answered, figure out how you will create a conversation around what customers need to know and when they need to know it. Adapt your overall narrative, recommended content, and calls to action to answer those questions every step of the way.

If you’ve done a good job providing something of value and interest, give customers an opportunity to continue learning and, if they’re so inclined, binge. Binge-worthy experiences can dramatically accelerate the buyer’s journey, so use this to your advantage by always providing customers with a subsequent step to take.

A continuum of experiences is ideal, but don’t let the pursuit of perfection stop you from starting. Pick one audience, define an overall strategy, and create one “persona-ised” experience as your first entry in what will eventually be a series of experiences, each with a specific purpose. Measure its performance against your one-size-fits-all default experience, and iterate until you meet specific goals or metrics.

Don’t let success get to your head

With all the hype surrounding personalisation, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and just go for the quick win – and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a great place to begin. Just don’t stop there.

You might feel directionless at the start, but the route from point A to point B will become clear if you work to understand your customers. Once you know where you’re headed, you’ll have a suite of holistic experiences that will help your company connect with customers in a way that feels personal because it’s relevant – not because it was created for them individually.