Balancing Personalized Service With ‘Creep Factor’

Technology today allows companies to personalize websites at a very sophisticated level, but they need to make sure not to creep out their customers.

That was one conclusion of a panel discussion last week in NYC on “Enabling Connected Conversations through Web Personalization,” moderated by Mike Grehan, ClickZ group publishing director. The panel is part of an ongoing discussion series held in various cities called Cocktails and Conversions, sponsored by Demandbase, Adobe, and digital agency MRM.

From left to right: Sean Skamnes, Chris Golec, Kevin Lindsay, Mike Grehan

The business case for personalization in both the B2B and B2C arenas is there: too often, websites are not optimized to help people find the most relevant content, leading users to quickly abandon a site. But personalization has common sense limits.

“Marketers have to be aware of the creep factor,” says panelist Kevin Lindsay, director of product marketing, targeting, and optimization at Adobe. “Businesses need to be pragmatic. How much do we really have to do? How deep do we have to go?”

Incidents such as the recent leaks of the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance of emails and telephone calls has heightened consumer sensitivity to what kinds of information marketers are looking at, the panelists agree.

“There is a trade-off between what you’ll allow an information provider to know about you in order to make the exchange more personally relevant,” says Grehan. “How do you find the balance between creating a comfortable experience and having users wonder how you know so much about them?”

Personalization should be used to “craft a message, but you need to craft that so you don’t shock the user,” says panel member Sean Skamnes, VP, digital engagement director at MRM McCann. Panel members agree that the best kind of personalization experience, whether it’s for an existing business customer or a potential buyer, should be barely noticeable. “It should be a highly tailored experience that subtlety engages a user to enter into a process. You don’t want the user to understand it’s happening to them,” Skamnes adds.

The rules and content will vary based on with whom the company is speaking. “Is it a customer, a business prospect, or a competitor? You need to identify that relationship to create an appropriate experience,” says panel member Chris Golec, founder and CEO of Demandbase, a company whose technology maps IP addresses to corresponding business addresses to help companies identify what kind of customer is approaching them.

A telecommunications website that can determine it is being visited by a prospective buyer from the banking industry, for example, can show that client a white paper related to financial services, whereas a potential health care customer sees one related to their industry. Demandbase data also shows that sites optimized to reach health care clients get double or triple the number of click-throughs than those that aren’t, according to Golec.

Successful personalization requires looking at content as “nimble assets that come together at the last millisecond, based on what the data tells them,” Adobe’s Lindsay notes. But getting the context right is key in assessing what to deliver and how far to take personalization, the panelists say. Existing customers are likely to be more open to highly personalized offers than potential ones, for example, and consumers have to be treated most cautiously.

The timing and placement of the personalized context is also important. “If the assets and brand you have and the products you want to sell are placed at the wrong point in the journey it can work against you,” Lindsay says, citing the example of a company that invests heavily in expensive, beautifully displayed content, which is then delivered to the inappropriate people or at the wrong time in the sales process. “If not used in the right context, combined with what you know about the visitor, it may well do the opposite of what you want it to.”

The industry still has a long way to go in translating the ability to personalize to mobile devices, the execs also say. There are no cookies on mobile devices and unless a user logs in, it’s much more difficult to track them across devices. One way forward for the future is near-field communications (NFC) tags embedded into phones that enable users to conduct wireless transactions over short distances. This would enable them, for example, to purchase items without carrying a credit card. At the same time, that will help marketers better identify the users behind specific transactions.

“This will compel mobile users to share,” says Skamnes, who estimated that around 80 million devices already have NFC tags in them. Juniper Research expects 20 percent of cellphones worldwide to have this capability by 2014.

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