Fueling Web Customization

Numerous e-commerce companies have been left stranded on the roadside of the information superhighway. These marketers investigated the early possibilities of Web customization — producing a personalized shopping experience and contact strategy for each customer — but ran into IT nightmares or consumer privacy issues.

But even after you remove such roadblocks, your journey toward customization may stop short without the fuel of external marketing data.

Steering toward the goal

Before we discuss external marketing data, however, we need to address the purpose of customization. The goal of any Web customization effort, product, or service should not be to solve a problem, streamline a process, or make people’s lives easier. The core function is to turn a profit for the business.

Companies that fall in love with their Websites and technology usually forget this fact. These marketers think the byproducts of turning a profit (solving a problem, streamlining a process, making people’s lives easier) are actually the core function of customization.

Granted, this sounds like harsh language. But all of the second-line functions of Web customization can roll up to support the company’s big-picture goal (see “Effects of Web Customization,” page 43). For instance, if Web customization enables a return customer to make a purchase without having to reenter all of his credit card and shipping information, that certainly makes the customer’s life easier. But more important, the customer — because his life has been made easier — is now more likely to return to your Website to shop, rather than to try a competitor.

In short, if customization does not lend itself to the ultimate goal of increased profits, save your time, effort, and dollars. Spend those resources on other endeavors that will boost profitability.

Steering clear of roadblocks

Many companies start with the right motives and the right ideas, but at some point their love of the technology confines them to a myopic view of the marketplace. Or they downplay the consumer privacy issue. While most (if not all) sites post a privacy policy, few actively refer to that policy while building a relationship with the customer.

Both technology and privacy issues contribute to customer expectations. Not meeting the two prime expectations of customers and prospects are roadblocks keeping you from your goals. What are those two expectations?

Customer expectation #1: Things should work.

When we buy a DVD player, we expect a remote control to come with it. When we go to a Website, we expect it to load on the first hit. When we search for a product online, we expect to find it. When we click “order,” we expect our payment information to be sent securely — and for the confirmation page to appear rather than a server error page. Because consumers are becoming increasingly less tolerant of error, assume that you get just one shot to win over a prospect.

Long-term customers may be more forgiving, but “new and improved” features can, ironically enough, push them away: These features do not work in the manner to which the customers have grown accustomed. Think about the last time your cable or satellite provider rearranged its channel lineup. Remember how irritated you were when you tuned in for The Weather Channel but got Home Shopping Network instead? Consumers hitting a Website are no different. If they are repeat users, they expect to find things as they did the last time. Any site improvements, then, had better clearly benefit return customers.

If your Web customization puts any aspect of this customer expectation at risk, you are putting your ultimate goal at risk. Customers will go somewhere else — to a site that works the way they expect it to.

Customer expectation #2: Customization should not be intrusive.

Any company undertaking a Web customization initiative without a forward-thinking stance on consumer privacy is treading on dangerous ground. Let’s say you have information that lets you know whether a person has children. The best use of that data would be to cross-sell products for their kids on-screen by providing impressions of the latest children’s wear or toys. The worst thing to do would be to pop an impression asking, “How are your kids today? Did your daughter make it off to school all right? Consider our winter coat sale so she won’t be cold anymore.” Sure, it sounds exaggerated. Unfortunately, companies have made missteps almost as blatant, which have cost them dearly.

Targeting the right products to the right people is entirely possible while maintaining the agreement of customer privacy online. Web customization, when done responsibly, enables you to maximize your Web presence and achieve the ultimate goal.

Choosing the correct fuel

This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of Web customization: the point where customer data come into the mix. Any Web customization must include data, such as demographic, interest, and lifestyle information, that supplement the company’s internal customer data.

Obviously, data specific to the enterprise, including internal data, should be your starting point. You have invaluable information within your own data stores that provide you what no data supplier can — information such as transaction and customer service history. But if you stop there, you get only a shadow of the customer and miss the opportunity to communicate appropriately and effectively with that buyer.

Imagine you’re driving down a customer’s street at about six o’clock on a weeknight, observing the houses. Just as you approach your customer’s home, a person pulls into the driveway, stopping short of the overturned tricycle and the bike with training wheels lying close to the garage door. As that person gets out of the car and heads into the house, you could make some assumptions:

  • the customer has a toddler and a preschooler.
  • at least one person in the household is employed.
  • a rough estimate of the household’s income, based on the neighborhood, the size of the house, and the type of vehicle driven.

The addition of some type of external household-level demographic data allows you to do what we just sampled with a walk down your customer’s street. No intrusion. No questions that make them uneasy. Simply using information within your customization effort that anyone walking in the neighborhood could assume.

When you enhance your customer file with external marketing data, be sure to use a multisourced database that contains lifestyle and demographic information. Do your homework to find the most comprehensive source to help you accomplish your customization needs.

You should also consider enhancing the data at the point of contact with your customer — asking a follow-up question regarding his purchase or previous shopping experiences, for instance. By doing this, you can better understand and respond to your buyer, develop a complete customer picture from partial information, and build loyalty — all in real time.

Your internal data are crucial, yet limited in power. External data can add more “octane” to your customer service “fuel” and considerable power to your marketing machine.


Mark Hodges is the strategic product marketer for Little Rock, AR-based Acxiom’s InfoBase Consumer Enhancement Products.

Effects of Web Customization

Action Effect Result
Provide a “customized” shopping experience for the customer. Reduces clicks between hit and purchase. Facilitates shipping ease. Revenue generated faster for the company.
Provide special notice to customers based on their preferences. Instills customer satisfaction and retention. Revenue generated long-term through customer retention. One step closer to your site being the “first hit” on an e-commerce shopping tour.
Cross-sell and upsell based on knowledge of past customer behavior and assumptive data. Generates the “I didn’t realize they had that” mentality. Deepens the relationship between customer and company. Revenue generated by bringing little-known products to the forefront for the right people.

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