Tailoring Your Site to Your Users

Having a relationship with someone, whether it’s in person or through a web site, carries several responsibilities. For instance, when friends call us we express our pleasure at hearing from them. We don’t say things like, “Do I know you?” or “If this is your first time to call me, press 7.”

We wouldn’t do that in our personal lives, so why do sophisticated web sites fail to automatically recognize frequent visitors? Fortunately, there are several ways to allow a site to do this… and they can be used by practically any site.

It’s easy to see why recognizing a frequent web visitor is important. Each of us appreciates the extra attention that comes from being considered special. We treat close friends and family differently than we treat strangers or people we’ve just met. It’s a natural part of having a relationship.

In business, we recognize good customers and treat them differently than strangers or infrequent customers. Salespeople talk about doing special things for their best customers. Product managers talk about identifying frequent buyers and rewarding them with a loyalty program.

So, why do many web sites require frequent visitors and good customers to identify themselves instead of automatically recognizing them? After all, these are the people who make the business a success.

Of course, the traditional method of asking for a user ID and password works, but it doesn’t have the same positive impact on the relationship as automatically recognizing someone returning to your site. Having a user enter an ID is like not recognizing your sister’s voice on the phone when she calls.

There are a number of technologies that web developers can use to tailor the look of the home page and recognize each time a visitor returns to your site.

Many sites use shopping cart software that stores on customers’ computers cookies that contain a customer or session ID. These codes help the shopping cart system know which shopping cart belongs to each person. However, it is surprising how few sites use this information on their home page to recognize when an existing customer is returning to the site.

Sites that outsource their shopping cart system or run e-commerce on a separate server may not be able to access those cookies because of the security feature designed into the cookie protocol.

But cookies aren’t the only way to automatically identify web visitors. Bookmarks were used to store user information before Netscape created the cookie protocol.

Bookmarks can store a variety of information about a user, from a unique user ID code to very general data that just tells the server to display the “returning visitor” home page.

Unlike cookies that are stored by a command from the server, bookmarks are completely under the control of the user. This overcomes some of the privacy concerns about cookies and gives marketers extra control over branding and targeting opportunities.

For instance, you might have a public home page that people see when they enter your URL, and a slightly different home page that is seen when visitors click on your “home” link or on your logo. By encouraging people to bookmark the second home page, you can target people returning to your site with special offers that are not included on the initial home page.

Once you have identified someone as a returning visitor, there are two technologies that can be used to tailor content.

JavaScript routines can be included in web pages that instruct the browser how to alter the content of a page based on cookie data. In addition, server-side programs can tailor content based on data about an individual in a profile database.

Whatever the technique or technology used to recognize returning visitors, the main thing is to treat each individual in a special way that recognizes the relationship. This may mean shaping content according to how frequently someone has made purchases or visited your site. For instance, you might want to offer frequent customers different specials than what you offer occasional customers. Likewise for frequent vs. occasional visitors.

If you want to target frequent visitors and encourage them to become frequent buyers, take a look at the second impression you make as they return to your site. Then, make each subsequent visit even more personalized and more satisfying by making them feel more special than they did on their first visit to your site.

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