Profile Sharing

One of the truly amazing aspects of the web is the ability to create a web “site” that is actually composed of content served by several servers belonging to different companies.

A number of examples come to mind, such as inserting banner ads and co-branding logos into pages, as well as outsourced e-commerce applications. However, the time is coming when these will be considered very basic forms of web site integration. So web marketers should start dreaming up ways to use the new profile sharing technologies that will be with us next year.

I talked about the challenges of connecting different web sites before, making it so customer profile data can be used by all of the different web applications employed to create today’s web sites. I’ve participated in a number of meetings recently where the top agenda item was sharing data between servers, either within the company or with an outsourced vendor. It can be somewhat difficult to implement these profile sharing techniques, and there are security and privacy challenges that are always a part of such implementations.

There is an alphabet soup of groups working on ways to make it easy to share profiles between applications in ways that are appropriate for the merchant and approved by the customer.

In June, the Electronic Commerce Modeling Language (ECML) group announced a method that enables digital wallets to work with participating e-commerce web sites. ECML is easy to implement because it merely requires that web form fields use a common naming convention. The alliance meets frequently to review suggestions from the e-commerce industry, and expects to announce support from several major players next year.

A new organization was announced during the Personalization Summit in November, the Customer Profile Exchange (CPEX) Network. The approach taken by CPEX is to use the new Extensible Markup Language (XML) (i.e., make your own HTML-like tags) to define ways to share profile data between applications.

And, just to add to the list of standards groups, there is the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF). The DMTF’s focus is to develop data management standards that unify desktop computers, enterprise computers, and Internet computers. This is what the techies sometimes call the “plumbing” that actually integrates systems.

You can tell the web world is getting more complex when we’ve gone from simple TLAs (three-letter acronyms) to four-letter letter acronyms.

While these groups are working out the details of how to share data, marketers can be thinking up creative ways to serve customers by allowing profile data to follow customers (or precede customers) as they move about. I don’t mean just move about on the web, but move about in their physical world, too.

The recent news by Levi Strauss about discontinuing e-commerce on their web site illustrates the business challenges manufacturers face when attempting to sell directly to consumers.

It’s less expensive for a traditional bricks and mortar company to add e-commerce to its web site than for a dot-com company to add manufacturing and fulfillment to its operation. However, the real cost to manufacturers is not in technology, but the potential loss of revenue when they compete with their traditional distribution channels.

For Levi, it appears they found it more difficult to implement disintermediation than to pronounce the word.

However, there are ways that manufacturers can make a positive impact on revenues with a personalized web site while cooperating with retailers in their channel. One way is to serve the information needs of their customers, then help make it easy for the customer to make a purchase from an e-commerce site or a clicks-and-mortar retail merchant.

A couple of years ago, I thought it would be great to allow a shopper to visit the web site of a traditional shopping mall before heading off to face the traffic and crowds of Christmas shopping season. The concept tested well, but overcoming the technology hurtles made it too difficult to implement.

Once the various standards groups reach their goals for sharing data, it’ll be much easier for IT departments to connect computers at each of their customers’ touch points.

There are two big challenges that marketers need to consider in looking at implementing any profile-sharing technique. First, is whether it’s worth it. How much additional revenue will be generated by allowing each point of customer contact – from a manufacturer’s branding ad through to product delivery – to “know” the customer. Second, is whether customers will choose to permit that amount of personal data to be shared across multiple companies.

While the technical groups work out the tech details, just sit back and visualize the possibility of having stores and web sites everywhere say “Would you like your usual today?”

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