Quick and Easy Personalization

So many sites now use some form of personalization that it’s easy to assume that every site recognizes its frequent visitors and tailors itself based on profiles. In fact, it’s sometimes surprising when a site doesn’t use at least some form of personalization.

I’ve been especially surprised recently by several sites that store a great deal of data about me but don’t use it to help me.

For instance, every time I log onto my bank’s web site, I’m surprised to see banner ads for online banking because I’ve banked online with the institution for years. Another example is that my favorite online computer retailer shows specials on the home page that have nothing to do with anything I’ve bought from the company.

Then there’s my online grocery store. Its home page uses a little personalization, just enough to recognize me and say, “We noticed you haven’t completed your last order. Please continue shopping.” However, the specials on the home page are the same as those shown to first-time visitors, so they have no relation to my food preferences.

These businesses have obviously invested a great deal of programmer resources to allow customers to view online transaction history reports and other dynamically created data. Yet they have not taken the next step to personalize their sites. That is, they do not use their data to guide customers to products or services that would be obvious recommendations for any of their salespeople.

Many web marketers think it takes big budgets to use personalization, but that’s not necessarily true. For sites that already use content and transaction databases, there are several ways to add personalization without increasing the cost of the site.

Though personalization systems that are integrated with systems throughout a company take a great deal of time and money, there are many low-cost techniques that can help a company outshine its competition. In a fully personalized web site, this data is normally stored in a database on the web server, and an identifying code is stored in the user’s cookie.

Even if you don’t have a web database to store profile data, it’s relatively easy to use cookies to store codes describing the visitor that can be used by JavaScript routines to tailor web content. Although this eliminates the need to install a database system on the web server, it does limit the personalization possible. You wouldn’t want to store any personally identifiable information in cookies, but data can be encoded so that it’s meaningless to anyone who might see it.

You can ask one or two questions to get an idea of the person’s needs and interests or track his or her movements around the site. Then codes that represent the visitor’s demographic characteristic, market segment, or primary interest can be stored on the user’s computer.

With just a little data about a person, the site’s home page (or any page, for that matter) can be tailored to fit the reader. For example, links to the customer’s history can be created on the fly. Or one of the current specials can be selected from the customer’s favorite product category and placed near the top of the home page.

This technique can also be used by content sites to remember which topics the reader wants to see near the top of the home page.

It’s important for marketers and other company executives to consider the return on their investments before implementing personalization. However, there are numerous ways to inexpensively add personalization that can provide real-world data on whether personalization helps improve the site’s ROI.

Once it’s clear that personalization is valuable, it’s easier to develop plans to expand its use as part of the strategic plan to increase the value of the site.

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