This article provides a more detailed look at a program that I spoke about at Sitecore Symposium with my colleague, Matt Fitzgerald-Chamberlain. The focus of the talk was how we personalized the website visitor experience of ICF International for many of its different buyer personas, as well as, how we automated this on an ongoing basis.
The talk covered the business case for personalization, the solution overview, and the results achieved. In this article, we will discuss the key points covered in the talk and also dive a bit deeper into some of the more interesting aspects of the solution.
ICF is a global consulting and digital services company that combines unmatched expertise with cutting-edge engagement capabilities to help clients solve their most complex challenges, navigate change, and shape the future. In mid-2019, ICF’s corporate website ICF.com reached a critical inflection point: the combination of breadth and depth of ICFs industry experience and thought leadership also presented a huge user experience challenge: findability. In order to support marketing’s role in business growth, the ICF digital team knew that it needed to offer more tools for the website to sense and respond to user intent.
The ensuing project would leverage a custom tagging architecture to lay the foundations for increased content discovery and engagement across the ICF web experience. Leveraging Sitecore’s ContentSearch, XConnect and Experience Analytics, the team was able to iteratively re architect content discovery across the site with measured impacts in search traffic, more efficient customer journeys and number of inbound sales inquiries.
The Challenges Faced
In early 2019, ICF.com was an enterprise website where content had to be manually featured on individual pages by web administrators who were serving more than 18 industries and had to optimize for hundreds of services and audiences. This setup created a huge amount of overhead and workflow inflation, caused by an overly rigid website infrastructure.
Inefficiency was multiplied by the division of thought leadership and research content into two separate sections: the Blog and Resources, which had their own separate infrastructures. The landing experience for these two sections were based on a highly complex set of filters, which were added to each year as priority business growth areas changed or industry buzzwords evolved, leading to an outdated and ineffective means for finding content. The burden was on the user to sort through the full list of terms and filters to produce a presentation of content in their subject area.
Relevant content was also difficult for users to find due to an ineffective on-site search capability and inability to create targeted content experiences through personalization due to lack of information and personalization options focused on user intent.
Rapidly changing customer demand for consulting services across the industries ICF served created a disorganized page structure that lacked a strategic and holistic approach to content organization, which in turn undermined efforts to improve SEO, reach new audiences, and engage leads.
Because ICF customers might face more than one business challenge and need multiple services, ICF.com ended up surfacing duplicate content and service descriptions on many pages in order to capture those more expansive solutions. This content duplication issue that was perpetuated by the site’s inability to keep cross-navigation links to other relevant topics and services up to date, since they had to be manually added and updated on individual pages pages.
The digital team also wasn’t able to gather information on user intent or create effective lead and demand generation programs based on website engagement activities without a way to convey information about the topics and types of content visitors and leads were engaging with on the site to systems like Marketo and Google Analytics.
Demand for Relevant Content
A content infrastructure with an evergreen core taxonomy and flexible options for growing into new focus areas helps surface relevant, fresh content to the right users. ICF is a rapidly changing professional services environment where new offerings are introduced regularly as our clients’ needs evolve. This created a state of churn in our web operations and the ICF website was suffering from a confusing information architecture and a high cost for keeping the site updated with fresh content.
ICF’s website, ICF.com, originally housed it’s thought leadership content in two separate sections: the Spark Blog and Resources. Customers did not make that distinction though: they consumed based on topics of interest. However, content in the Blog and Resources sections didn’t have an integrated taxonomy for organizing content. A resilient taxonomy which could respond to contextual changes was necessary to create auto-populated category pages, and provide a unified user experience that surfaced relevant content.
Because ICF maintains vertical as well as functional practice areas, ICF also needed thought leadership and research content to live and be indexed on multiple web properties. One example is the website for ICF Next, ICF’s marketing and digital services agency.
Challenges in Content Discovery
The Blog and Resource sections were seeing minimal organic search traffic growth. Blog and resources sections needed to be combined into a single Insights section to make it easier to find thought leadership content in one place. This reorganization would also strengthen the impact of information architecture improvements and SEO on organic search traffic to Insights.
Along with the creation of auto-generated landing pages for Insights category pages, those landers needed to feature links to related topics and tags within Insights to improve discoverability and the browsing experience.
In our on-site search redesign project, we needed a way to surface search results around central topics we know our users are searching for even if the page doesn’t have that term in the text.
The Need for Advanced Personalization
Our team needed to be able to take any individual module (like a feature about energy services, or a promotion of a client story, a newsletter subscription, or a list of upcoming webinars) and deploy it across a set of pages.
We needed to be able to use information about how visitors have interacted with content in the past by audience segments.
We wanted to personalize visitor experiences across the website based on the topic areas and types of content they are consuming. That way we could surface the right content, at the right time, to the right audiences, anywhere on the site, and, very importantly, at scale.
Integrated Analytics Approaches Are Also Required
In creating a new way to organize and serve up content experiences, the ICF website needed to be able to integrate it’s tagging data with other systems, including Marketo and Google Analytics, in order to track user behavior and create effective lead and demand generation programs.
Sitecore provides a more efficient, effective, and resilient website: Single architecture, different modes of presentation
Building a new, resilient information infrastructure ultimately brought Blog and Resources together into one section on ICF.com called “Insights.” Backed by a multi-level tagging taxonomy, the ICF team could sort all insight pieces into overarching topics, more granular and cross-applicable tags, as well as, custom channels for podcast shows, the corporate blog, and the ICF Next agency blog. Centrally managed, these tags could be updated and curated as the business landscape changed.
We leveraged Sitecore ContentSearch and Solr’s faceting features to expose other related topics, tags, content labels and channels based on the current context. This encourages content discovery and cross-navigation, while also keeping what’s shown relevant to the user.
On-site search, powered by Sitecore ContentSearch and Solr, was updated to match user queries to the topics, tags, content labels and channels, and then use that information to locate pages, even if they do not appear in the text of the page. This increases the likelihood of locating relevant content the first time with fewer refinements and gives content editors more control of matching without the need for keyword stuffing.
To improve SEO, we leveraged the “topic” field to dynamically generate the URLs of Insight pieces, while keeping a maintainable structure in Sitecore.
Our team architected a solution which leverages the taxonomy of topics, tags, content labels and channels, and ICF tagged the Insights and other pages. This allowed us to dynamically generate landing pages for the Insights section as well as embed dynamic collections of Insights throughout other pages on the site. In subsequent releases we built upon this foundation to extend this functionality to other collections of pages beyond Insights, including expert profiles, technology products and case studies.
One of the core mechanisms created for our Sitecore content team is the Insights Collection by Tag Selection module. This allows ICF to embed feeds of content anywhere on the site based on selections of topics, tags, content labels and channels. This module can be configured once, and will automatically stay up to date as new content is published.
The foundation of the tagging system is based on Sitecore ContentSearch and Solr powered by SearchStax (https://www.searchstax.com/blog/icf-uses-searchstax-and-engagency-to-drive-better-search/), allowing indexed content to be searched and faceted in flexible and customizable ways.
How we did it: Personalization creates custom content experiences for a diverse and evolving set of audiences
In order to store information about what topics, tags, content labels and channels a visitor has viewed, we built a custom contact facet for storing the information in Sitecore xConnect. Using that, we were able to expose that information via personalization conditions to the content editors, enabling them to personalize components based on the topics, tags, content labels and channels that a visitor has viewed.
Additionally, since pages are tagged, we were able to build custom dimensions for Sitecore Experience Analytics and expose them in the Experience Analytics dashboard, allowing ICF to view the performance of content broken down by topic, tag, content label and channel. By making use of Sitecore Experience Analytics to handle the aggregation and display, we only had to worry about the extraction of the data from the viewed pages.
How we did it: ICF.com supports a cross-channel customer experience through resilient content strategy
Our solution exposes the information on what topics, tags, content labels and channels a user visits with Google Tag Manager, so that information can be sent to Google Analytics and Marketo for further reporting and marketing automation.
Instead of static or manual created feeds, we have configured Sitecore to create arbitrary RSS feeds of content based on any combination of tagging parameters whenever needed, which can then be used to drive social media and newsletter updates. This was built using the same Sitecore ContentSearch and Solr based backend.
Outcomes & Impact
The new content capabilities on ICF.com had massive impacts on performance, as well as our team’s ability to scale and maintain an effective web content strategy across the website.
A contextual element strategy reduces overhead and frees up our staff to work on strategic initiatives by streamlining workflow and processes for automating featured content through simple tag selection. It provides content creators and subject matter experts the opportunity to influence how tags are applied to content without wasting time on giving feedback for individual page updates.
Automation and better content organization saves time so content can be developed faster, helping us get an edge on the competition.
We now have a resilient web content strategy, using an evergreen and sustainable core tagging taxonomy that allows for agile growth as ICF expands into new areas. This means we are able to scale our content development and marketing campaign efforts.
A more intelligent automation means more relevant, contextual customer experiences across the website. Individual category landing pages allowed ICF to serve up relevant content to a diverse set of audiences without putting the burden on users to filter through a library of resources. In fact, visitors don’t even have to go to the Insights section, because our featured related Insights modules and personalized experiences automatically showcase the most recent and relevant content.
Results: Organic and on-site search performance improvements point to more discoverable content
The introduction of the new contextual element strategy and Insights redesign on October 22, 2019 was directly correlated with an increase in sessions from organic search to Insights pages.
- Traffic to all Insights pages from organic search increased by 16% from October 23, 2019 to May 23, 2020, despite the seasonal decrease due to the holidays and the site-wide dip in total traffic due to COVID-19.
- Organic search traffic to sub-pages in the Insights section, excluding the top-level landing page, increased by 21%.
Content discoverability was also impacted by our on-site search improvements:
- Percent exit rate from on-site search has decreased by 33% since the new experience launched on February 11, 2020.
- Additionally, the bounce rate for on-site search pages decreased by 26% and unique pageviews of search pages increased by 84%.
- Entrances to search pages increased by 65%, suggesting that users are sharing search result pages, which is a testimony to the quality of search results.
The contextual element strategy helped to improve on-site search, improving a number of results. We’ve observed the following improvements for sessions that included a visit to an on-site search page since launch on February 11:
- 25% increase in sessions
- 10% increase in pages/session
- 11% increase in average session duration
- 88% increase in number of sales inquiries and a 50% increase in sales inquiry conversion rate
- 91% increase in gated resource form fills, and a 52% increase in conversion rate
This indicates that if the right people can find a right content at the right time, with the help of a new tagging taxonomy in on-site search, then they are more likely to engage and convert.
Results: More relevant content experiences means more direct traffic, more downloads, better conversion rates, and more sales inquiries.
Direct traffic to all Insights pages (by sessions), an indicator of brand awareness and stickiness, increased by 29% after the contextual element strategy launched on October 22, 2019. Direct traffic to Insights sub-pages increased by 36%.
Our contextual element strategy, automation, and personalization help surface relevant, fresh content to the right users, increasing gated form fills for downloadable assets by 102% and the conversion rate for gated resource pages by 147%. Furthermore, the number of gated resource form fills from organic search increased by 44%, and the conversion rate for gated resources increased by 49%.
Sales inquiries from ICF.com that were generated during sessions where visitors visited an Insights page increased by 57% after the contextual element strategy was deployed. What’s more, sales inquiries from entrances on Insights pages from organic search increased by 41%, from direct increased by 58%, and from referral increased by 440%.
Results: Personalization creates contextual, relevant experiences, driving improvements in value per visit
The impact of personalization can be seen in Sitecore Experience Analytics’ “online interactions by visits and value per visit” report. Here, more evergreen improvements in engagement can be seen across ICF.com, after we launched tag-driven personalization on April 7, 2020.
Results: Customer experience beyond the website
The ICF corporate marketing team can track and measure the performance of website content with Google Analytics and Marketo segments based on ICF.com’s contextual element strategy. Content for social media updates and email newsletters rely on ICF.com’s tag-driven RSS feeds. The Marketo and ICF demand team is shaping the areas of interest used in evaluating leads by leveraging ICF.com’s contextual element strategy implementation. We expect to see more results as these marketing tactics and techniques continue to develop.
Put to the test: Business resiliency and new website capabilities face COVID-19
Our contextual element strategy launched on October 22 alongside the revamped Insights section, our new on-site search design launched on February 11, and our tag-driven personalization capability launched on April 7, 2020. By the end of March 2020, companies like ICF had issued stay-at-home orders as a part of widespread public efforts to prevent the spread of a global pandemic from the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
As a part of the consulting industry, ICF depends on client relations and sales efforts by consultants for much of its business growth. But once the stay-at-home orders went out, the ability of our consultants to make direct pitches to potential clients ceased. ICF experienced what many companies did due to the need for social distancing: a sudden and massive shift to relying on digital communication channels to reach customers. ICF.com’s role in marketing strategy and campaigns became even more key to business resilience.
On top of that, ICF houses consulting expertise in the areas of public health, survey research, disaster management, digital transformation, emergency preparedness, and more. Our experts had a lot of valuable and timely recommendations to surface for our audiences on the site.
Content development around COVID-19-related industries and services on the website quickly accelerated, pushing our recently launched capabilities to the limit.
We’ve posted 66 unique pieces of content about COVID-19, created a series hub for a multi-wave survey, deployed content promotions across relevant pages, resulting in:
- Bounce rate on homepage decreasing by 19%.
- Even when overall site traffic decreased in April, number of form fills stayed relatively stable, leading to an increase in value per visit.
Our contextual element strategy drives many important aspects of ICF’s website tactics: automating featured content across the site, classification of thought leadership pieces, and on-site search ranking. In addition, it helps make our analytics more relevant both within Sitecore and our other core marketing applications such as Google Analytics and Marketo.
Over the following year, our team matched and added 5,600 tags to more than 2,200 pages and items across ICF’s website, ICF.com, for topic areas, content tags, content types, and channels. And now, because of these content infrastructure and automation capabilities, we dramatically improved ICF.com’s user experience, content relevancy, content discoverability, personalization, tracking and measurability, and cross-system communication with other marketing tools.
Video of the Conference Presentation
The video of the conference presentation is embedded below. While it shares highlights of this article, it skims over many of the technical details relevant to our audience.
Many thanks to the people that contributed to this program in one way or another especially Rebecca White, Matt Fitzgerald-Chamberlain, Carla Romaine, Dhyana Pomaibo.