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Personasnobody seems to use the Latin plural, personaeare one way of creating what Rail oxymoronically describes as "generic personalization." John Hancock, which last year merged with Canadian financial services firm Manulife Financial Corp., built its retirement planning Web site around three personas. "What we are doing is marketing to personalities," she says. "When you talk about 401Ks and retirement, that is an emotional subject. A site needs to be somewhat personalized to be relevant and get customers engaged."
To prepare its personas, John Hancock worked with specialized researchers, including a demographer and the marketing firm Razorfish (now Avenue A Razorfish). The researchers talked to actual customers about what retirement planning meant to them. They found that people in differing financial situations often approach the planning process in different ways, but tailoring the Web experience to a user's wealth was not the way to go. Instead, the site is designed to meet the emotional needs of three different personality types, personified by characters named Rozi, David and Ernest. "Rozi is looking for guidance, but she wants to arrive at her own conclusions," Rail says. David, on the other hand, wants the answers spoon-fed to him, and Ernest (who enjoys cigars, watches The Sopranos, and thinks his siblings resent his financial success) likes to dig for his own information. "We developed the site with three levels of interaction to meet the learning styles and comfort levels of individuals," says Rail.
All customers see the same basic content when they come to the John Hancock site, but their experiences may diverge as they click for more details. In effect, users personalize their own sessions. This kind of transaction-based personalization, in which the conduct of a customer during a particular interaction with the company influences the remainder of that session, is another key element of current personalization strategy. Readers of the Wall Street Journal's online edition, for example, might be shown particular ads based on the sites from which they clicked to the newspaper. A mortgage company ad, for instance, might appear for viewers who have linked from a real estate or lending site.
"People are using personalization to make each session better, based not on what you bought last month but what you are looking at now," says Rich LaFauci, a senior vice president at Digitas New York. This technique doesn't require sophisticated tools such as collaborative filtering to mine clues about customer interests from the context of a session, and then guide customer behavior and experience accordingly. "Session context personalization has a good effort-to-benefit ratio," says LaFauci. "It requires no effort from the consumer, and a much smaller investment in technology than a big database."
At Sovereign, the focus is on increasing the amount of self-service by each customer during a visit to the site. That might mean transferring money, changing an address, or switching from one account type to another. Like personas, self-service helps the bank anticipate customer needs, says Marianne Doran-Collins, senior vice president and director of online and affinity banking at Sovereign. Data gleaned from these transactions gives the company more information about real-life customer behavior. "It lets us build out our view of what they are likely to do online," she says.
Sounds neat, right? So did the first round of personalization. Does any of this stuff actually work? Rail says there is evidence that suggests the John Hancock site has become more effective since its persona-fied redesign was launched in 2003. John Hancock customers use the site much more frequently than the industry average, according to survey data provided by the company, and 84 percent of those who come to the site try out John Hancock's Internet planning tools (versus an industry average of 49 percent). Repeat visits to the site more than doubled after the redesign.
All the while, John Hancock is accumulating information on actual customers who visit the site. Marketing to individual customers remains an aspiration for many companies, and incremental strategies, such as personas and self-tailored sessions, are also ways of moving toward that goal. "Most of the time, especially in the first meeting online, or through a toll-free number, you don't have the data you need to make it personally relevant," Rail says. "We tell our customers that the more we know, the more we can improve their experience. People are more willing to cooperate when you set expectations up front."
Says Digitas's Cosinuke: "Before you can create an individual experience for each customer, you need to make it worthwhile for the customers to share their information with you. Most companies are not doing that."
True personalization is still far off for most companiesand not everyone thinks it is even worth pursuing.