As cookies crumble, it’s outcomes that matter for a personal digital experience, not technology!

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher December 2, 2021
Organizations need to rethink the role of websites as products, argues Alex Atzberger, CEO of Optimizely.


Digital experiences are evolving, but if companies don’t focus on the right things, they won’t find the growth they really want. That’s what Alex Atzberger, CEO of Optimizely, argues about the end of third-party cookies and the impact this will have on the digital experience.

In October 2020, digital experience platform provider Episerver acquired Optimizely, a testing and optimization platform. It was significant news at a time when digital experience was getting a lot harder to do well, and testing and optimization were beginning to be recognized as critical to creating great experiences. Then in January of the following year, the Episerver brand was dropped, and the acquirer took on the identity of the acquired.

Atzberger said that companies need help understanding what content to show, how to think about the customer journey, and what leads to conversions. There is no one answer; it’s a process of experimenting and optimizing continually. It’s as much art as it is science:

They [brands] want to understand their customers better, and how do you understand the customer better? You look at their behaviors, and obviously, testing is the best and most proven way to look quantitatively at the behaviors of your customer base.

For Atzberger, a few things led to the decision to acquire Optimizely and rebrand under the Optimizely brand. First, brand recognition and market presence were key. But the strategy also supported the larger story that the company wanted to tell - “about digital optimization and constantly adapting to change.”

How the cookie crumbles

That’s where third-party cookies come in - or soon don’t.. Companies use third-party cookies to help understand the background and intent of customers. They add this cookie content into the customer profile to build better targeted, personalized experiences. It does work - not always if the data is bad- but with third-party cookies soon coming to an end, how will companies continue to provide that personalized experience?

For Optimizely customers, it isn’t a huge issue. As Episerver, the firm built a digital experience platform that looks at how organizations can learn more about customers based on what they are actually doing on their web property.

Atzberger explained that when someone comes to a site, and there is no third-party cookie, only an IP address, it is still possible to quickly analyze the first clicks and stitch together a customer profile that allows for a personalized experience. The acquisition of Idio, an AI-powered content personalization, and analytics platform, in 2019 helps Optimizely do this via the Optimizely Intelligent Cloud.

Outcomes, outcomes, outcomes

Atzberger thinks marketers have become so enamored with the technology and different marketing concepts and strategies that they lose focus on why they’re doing the work:

What really matters is the outcome you look for - you need to keep that outcome in mind.

Optimizely did a study on this idea and published the results in the report, Becoming an Adaptive, Outcomes-focused Business. In the report, adaptive is defined as “having the ability to take a solution and fit it into an established structure and have customer journeys that exceed their expectations in new ways.”

The study found that 9 out of 10 respondents think their company must be able to adapt quickly to drive value for customers. However, only 46% say they are an adaptive business.

Even more insightful is that 78% of consumers surveyed as part of the report said brands need to do a better job adapting to meet the needs of the current moment.

Marketers first need to think outcomes first, said Atzberger. Then they need to ask, “How can I simplify this?” This thinking leads to two key objectives:

  1. You need to provide a compelling digital experience.
  2. You need to ensure your digital presence is becoming the engine of the business, not just another information website.

Atzberger states that as you convert customers, you create loyalty, repeatability, and stickiness. You serve relevant information and activate that experience across channels. But so many times, companies fail to do this. And it’s not only because of third-party cookies:

You really need to keep the outcome in mind and figure out what to prioritize.

Organizations need to think about their websites as a business engine that needs to adapt quickly to understand the customer better and to view both websites and digital entities as a product. It’s a significant shift for companies to look at their website in this way, but it’s critical for long-term success.

Experimentation starts to come into play here. Atzberger shared an example of how things can change for a company. Monterey Bay Aquarium had a ticket site where you went to purchase tickets to go to the aquarium; it was an information website. When COVID hit, the website suddenly had to change, and the quality of the digital content was critical. Kids were coming to the site to learn about the aquarium and see the animals. The aquarium had to think about how they wanted to personalize the content. The site essentially became a product.

Monterey Bay Aquarium adapted. But many more brands are still not delivering the experiences consumers demand. In the study, 49% of global consumers said their expectations for brand experiences are not being met. Additionally, 65% of those consumer respondents agree that their expectations for experiences with brands are now higher than they used to be.

Being adaptive is critical

If organizations can think of websites as products, the entire approach to building and managing them changes. Too many companies are static or reactive, Atzberger said. Even though they may be growing well over digital, they are still losing market share. The ability to adapt quickly is critical.

According to the firm’s study, some of the challenges companies face include disconnected systems and data that keep companies from understanding their customers or the entire customer journey. Many marketers are also focusing on the wrong activities.

That last challenge is where experimentation can help. One of the fastest-growing areas of the Optimizely business is experimentation. Companies are not only testing the UI of a website but also the business logic. They are testing the journey flow (eg: When do we show pricing? How does the search operate?). This requires a cultural change, however, because now the website has become a product to manage.

This area is growing partly because product people are getting involved in the design of the digital experience. It’s important to move away from building things based on assumptions of how they should work. Instead, organizations need to lead with data and insights and actual customer behavior.

My take

I agree that it’s time we rethink our approach to creating and managing the website experience. We are long past brochureware websites, but we still haven’t figured out how to make website experiences that put the customer first and adapt as customers change. Approaching website design like a product means putting more processes around interaction design, journey mapping, and user experience – not as individual activities but as a coordinated plan.

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