2002: The Abridged Version

ClickZ published my first column on January 8, 2002. In that piece, called “2002: The Year We Make Contact (With Our Customers),” I introduced my goals for this column:

  • To expand the vision of personalization to include all aspects of customer interaction and write about the best and worst ways to win over your customers and engender loyalty.
  • To answer real questions from you about problems you are facing and provide (to the best of my abilities) answers that work, that you can use immediately.

In my “Your Web Site as a Narrative Device” series, I talked about how every page on your site has to be part of a larger macro-narrative that ties the entire site together. For my last article this year, I am going to use all of this year’s articles as “micro-narratives” and fold them into the macro-narrative that I have tried to create this year, using the two goals above as my guide.

Expanding the Vision of Personalization

Personalization is not just about saying “Welcome back, Jack!” and developing “my” sites. Personalization is a design ethos that shows respect for the user and intelligence in the presentation of content. It is a way to engage users and increase their loyalty.

Many people think “personalization” must be expensive and use a lot of technology they don’t understand. This reminds me of an age-old academic debate in the world of Artificial Intelligence. Many anti-AI people say we can never make a machine as smart as a human, because humans have an intelligence we ourselves don’t understand. And because computers only do what we tell them, they clearly can never be truly intelligent. The question that is at the crux of the debate is: Can we call something “intelligent” if we know how it works? The human brain is intelligent partly because its workings are largely beyond our comprehension.

Ideas like this lead many to believe that personalization needs to use heavy technology. After all, if the personalization was “simple” (like just using a softer tone of voice on your site), is it really personalization? If you have been reading my column for the last year, you know the answer is yes. Because there is a lot you can do without complex and expensive technology, personalization can be achieved on a small budget.

While I have spent considerable time convincing everyone that personalization involves more than just a “my” site, we also need to pay attention to what people consider to be “conventional personalization.” This year, we looked at how to design a “my” area, and even came up with a (then-current) ranking of “my” sites. Once a personalized site is built, however, the work isn’t over. Peoples’ interests change over time, and a real personalized site needs to take peoples’ changing interests into account.

The findings of the “best my sites” survey pointed to the fact that personalized sites are now an expected part of the online user experience. More than that, people speak about personalized sites with real passion. That is why people are really upset when personalization misunderstands them. There are two ends to this spectrum: perceived personalization, which happens when sites appear to be personalized but aren’t, and myopic personalization, that tries to limit your view too much.

Personality On and Off-line

We spent a lot of time this year talking about personality, and how it affects the user experience. We talked about how to mix personalization with personality to create online marketing that speaks in a personal tone and removes unnecessary walls between your company and your users.

Personality and personalization are not just oddities of the online world. They began off-line, and have somehow lost their way in the off-line world. We talked extensively this year about how these affect the total user experience, across all touchpoints. When customer service fails, as it did in the Virgin Atlantic case study, then the entire user experience suffers. Personal communication is stronger than mass-marketing, so an ill-worded letter from a customer service rep negates a million-dollar ad campaign very quickly. Traditional mail, email, call centers, and all other customer touchpoints are crucial aspects of your customer strategy, and all need to reflect a unified vision of personalization and user experience.

Telling a Good Story in a Needs-Based Design

Everyone has needs, but you don’t need to know all of them to effectively personalize a user experience. By understanding the concepts of needs-based browsing and needs-based searching, you can build user experiences that make more sense. Even anonymous users have needs, and by following a needs-based approach, you can quickly provide an enhanced user experience for anonymous browsers, starting them on the path of knowledge sharing, and gaining their loyalty before they even register with your site.

At its very root, every good user experience engages users, and brings them along a path of learning and enlightenment. That is why we dedicated so much time talking about the use of narrative devices in the context of your Web site and email marketing strategies. Macro- and micro- narratives are essential to getting your points across to your users, and they help in the educational process. All dialogue, in fact, is about education, which is why the use of education to enhance user experiences can’t be an afterthought, and needs to be taken into account from the very beginning of the design process.

On to Next Year

I made a promise at the end of my first article last year: “I promise to make the time we spend together worthwhile.” I hope I have held to my promise and that you have found this column useful, interesting, and original.

My goals for the coming year are simple. First, I intend to continue pursuing the goals I set forth last year — expanding the vision of personalization until it touches all customer contact areas and becomes a theme in all your marketing efforts. I will also continue with case studies that showcase the readers out there who are making great strides, or those who need a little help, in finding the most effective ways to communicate with their users.

Additionally, I want to talk more about multi-channel marketing (something I lecture on frequently, but haven’t written much about) and the use of non-traditional channels for personalization. I want to talk more about B2B user experiences, personalization within corporate infrastructures, loyalty programs, and a host of topics that are beyond the scope of what we normally regard as “customer interaction.”

We need to augment our traditional understanding of who our “customers” are, and include our employees, our bosses, our vendors, our donors, our internal lines of business, etc. Once we loosen our definition of who a “customer” is, the playing field becomes wide open, and we realize that everything we have talked about this year can now be placed into the context of a much larger idea: the basic principles of communicating effectively with other people.

I look forward to exploring these topics and more with you in the coming year. Have a safe and healthy New Year, and please email me if you have any comments on the last year of this column, or thoughts for the coming one.

until next time. . .

jack