Get personal with bespoke e-services

Who would you like a one-to-one with? Danny Bradbury explores how to produce a tailored e-commerce experience that is...

Who would you like a one-to-one with? Danny Bradbury explores how to produce a tailored e-commerce experience that is made-to-measure for each customer

The ultimate goal of any good marketing campaign is to be all things to all people. The larger the demographic base that you target with your campaign, the better your chances of success. Nevertheless, marketing executives always face a dilemma when trying to appeal to a large audience - they need to practice mass marketing techniques while understanding that individuals have their own unique interests and idiosyncrasies.

Personalisation is the key. The dynamic, interactive nature of the Internet makes it possible to change this, so that different people see different things according to preset preferences, or according to an analysis of their online behavior. By keeping track of these two things, it becomes possible to serve up a tailored experience.

Generally, a personalised Web experience takes the form of a home page that has been specifically altered to suit the users' needs. An example of this could be an online book and music store, for example, on which a customer has registered the fact that he is particularly interested in detective stories, along with alternative American pop.

There are two main ways in which e-commerce sites can be personalised. The first is probably the easiest, because it places the onus on the customer to define their preferences. Often carried out the first time a customer visits a site, it generally involves a registration process in which the customer answers various questions about their demographic makeup. Other, more sophisticated solutions may subtly track end-user behaviour, charting their navigation through a site, noting what areas of the site they visit and even how long they spend there, for example. Such techniques could also be used to find out whether a particular user often accesses advertisements on the site, and if so, what sort. Broadvision, the software company specialising in Web site personalisation products, sells a range of tools designed to collate such information and create profiles of Web site visitors.

The benefits of such personalisation techniques can be huge. Apart from providing a tailored home page, for example, companies personalising their customers' e-commerce experience could also ask customers to enter details of events that are important to them, such as relatives' birthdays. The site could then be programmed to check the customer's profile information in the database whenever they log on and remind them that a birthday is drawing near at the appropriate time. A really good site would even suggest birthday gifts to purchase based on information about the relative.

Such personalisation techniques are being used to make Internet advertising more effective. Doubleclick, an online advertisement server company, has constructed a network of member sites around the world that can be used to track user profiles and serve personalised advertisements to them on behalf of its advertisers.

The service can take information based on different criteria from its member sites - say, keywords entered by a user at a search engine site - and feed them back to its central server to find advertisements that would be appropriate to serve to a particular user. Thus, if a person visited a search engine that was a member of the Doubleclick service, and entered his search criteria as "jogging OR running OR fitness", Doubleclick may choose to display an advertising banner from one of its clients, which manufactures running shoes.

Personalising your Web site is a great way to increase the efficiency of your marketing operation, and increase the level of customer sales. Using third-party personalisation services also enables you to extend your reach beyond your own site and deliver well-targeted advertisements across the Internet.

Cookies

Cookies are a common way of accessing information about visitors to Web sites. They are small files written to visitors' hard drives when they visit a site, and can contain information about their activities on the site. They can be useful for personalisation because they enable a Web site to recall information about users' activities across multiple visits.

Permission-based marketing

One way to personalise e-commerce offerings while retaining customers' privacy is to engage in permission-based marketing. Some companies are now offering opt-in services that e-mail special offers from their clients to people who have specifically asked for such offers, and given information about their interests.

Companies offering such services include:

  • MyPoints

  • ChooseYourMail

  • PostMasterDirect

    Amazon Gets Personal

    Amazon is one company that has been stepping up its personalisation efforts recently. The firm sparked security concerns when it originally introduced its "One-Click" feature, enabling existing customers to place orders without re-entering their credit card details. Since then, Amazon has been adding personalised features to its site on an iterative basis.

    One example is the addition of a "new for you" column to its home page back in March, which recommends recently released books and videos based on a customer's purchasing history. It has also introduced a "quick picks" area, where on-the-spot recommendations can be made, again by analysing the products that a customer has purchased in the past.

    The firm's moves towards a personal service haven't always put it in people' s good books, though. It got hit with several class action lawsuits after it used technology from Alexa Internet. The technology was originally intended to collate user comments about products on different Web sites, but the Federal Trade Commission began looking into Amazon's use of the software after customers complained that the software was monitoring their Web surfing habits, and collecting personal information.

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