Individual Knowledge Doesn’t Always Help Understand Customer Groups

Personalization at most Web sites today is the equivalent of knowing someone well enough to wave to them on the street, says Jeff Flemings, senior vice president for account planning at online marketing firm Digitas. Future sites will know customers much better, he says—and may even begin to understand them.

CIO Insight: What does the user experience look like in five years when a customer goes to a company Web site?

Flemings: The bar will be raised in terms of what personalization implies. The site itself will be more personal to the individual user. There will be more real-time personalization, so that the site changes in reaction to the things a customer is doing. Maybe the site will even be able to learn in real time. And sites will be organized more around the user, and less around what the company wants to push.

What about Amazon-style recommendations, based on customer history?

That’s the other important track, and I hope that it will be the norm. It will require a lot of investment in technology, and mastering of complexity. We have to treat people as if we know them while the technology catches up, and that means we will continue to rely on replicas of personalization. Suggestions for where the online customer might go next on a site will be very important. There is a paradox of choice, where online customers are overwhelmed and you have to help each one through the offerings. Marketing will become more of a service, and marketers will have to formulate insights instead of just repeating what they know about you.

How will that happen at sites that don’t get high volumes of repeat traffic?

One way is to enlist customers in a personal relationship with the brand. People don’t buy a new truck every week, but GMC is already trying to bring them to its site much more frequently than the usual purchase cycle. The company is publishing content that isn’t really truck related, but that appeals to GMC buyers who are interested in things like home improvement. The idea is to create an emotional relationship.

Don’t investments in personalization chase diminishing returns when marketers have limited information on their customers?

That’s one reason to pursue deeper relationships. There will be more options for customizing a purchase, but that has to be balanced against the need for navigation through choices. People expect unique options, but most of them end up behaving in predictable ways. If five configurations account for 80 percent of sales, you design that into the site.

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