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Now More Than Ever, Savvy Sites Turn to Online Personalization to Keep Customers

 By Richard Barker (richardbarker@wwwiz.com)

 Not long ago, creating a customer profile on a Web site was all the rage. Today, it's as commonplace as the virtual shopping cart.

The first generation of personalizing a visitor's experience included collecting a user's data and using that information to deliver personalized information such as special offers, ads, content and purchase suggestions to a customer to keep that person coming back to a site.

Web site personalization has made huge strides just in the past year. New features such as wish lists (gift registries), personalized news, personal calendars and access to bill paying services have made personalizing a Web site not just a novelty, but a necessity for success.

Apparently e-businesses are paying attention to this next wave of Web site personalization. According to research firm Jupiter Communications ( http://jup.com), approximately 40% of e-businesses use personalization software. And among those that don't currently use some form of personalization, 93% plan to do so by next year.

While the level of personalization changes from year to year, the mantra of online customer service remains the same: keep customers on your site as long as possible, keep them coming back and attract new ones with what you have to offer.

Here are examples of e-businesses taking advantage of the latest in Web site personalization:

From DVD players to non-stick cookware, Buy.com (http://buy.com) sells a wide range of products. And it wants to give consumers a tool to make it easier for others to buy gifts–preferably from Buy.com. Near the ``buy" button is the ``wish list" button, which allows customers to add desired merchandise to a list. They can then give the URL of the list and their email address to friends, family and anyone else they would like to receive some not-so-subtle suggestions on what to buy. The key is to make the buying process easy: with a quick series of clicks, the buyer can purchase and ship gifts to the recipient, whose address is stored for shipping needs.

Another popular trend in personalization on the Web is centralized bill paying. These sites make it possible for people to pay most or all of their monthly bills from one place. No matter if it's a cable bill, phone bill or credit card payment, all that is required is a checking account number and a bill's due dates. Sites such as OnlineBillPay.com ( http://onlinebillpay.com) and StatusFactory (http://statusfactory.com) offer this service for a fee. Both offer to keep track of bills online and send email reminders about upcoming bills or to simply pay them and send you an itemized receipt every month. Cyberbills (http://www.cyberbills.com), parent company of StatusFactory, says it can help e-businesses offer customers an integrated way of paying, viewing, approving and managing bills over the Internet.

Online calendars are also becoming more fashionable for personal time management and effective for business purposes. They allow visitors to plot down important dates, such as birthdays, anniversaries, important meetings and day-to-day appointments. Most services like this offer advanced reminders by email as well. MyCalendar.com ( http://mycalendar.com) allows users to update their personalized planner from any Web-enabled device. It even allows them to synchronize their calendar with friends' and family members' calendars.

HomeGrocer.com (http://homegrocer.com) is known for personalization from the time a customer picks out her groceries, to the moment the food shows up at her door.

HomeGrocer, which recently merged with WebVan, keeps track of its customers' past purchases. Users can access a list that shows their regular shopping items, where they can quickly reorder and be on their way to the virtual checkout aisle. HomeGrocer is striving for convenience through personalization. Even in the delivery process, HomeGrocer continues to collect more information about its consumers. Couriers use a hand-held device to keep track of customer preferences, including delivery time and other instructions or comments.

And of course there are Amazon.com (http://amazon.com) and Yahoo! ( http://yahoo.com)–pioneers in Web site personalization.

Amazon.com sells everything from books, music, videos and games and offers personalized suggestions to 20 million people in more than 160 countries. Once a customer sets up an account and begins to make purchases, Amazon.com uses information on those purchases to suggest other items that may be of interest to that individual. Customers who want to receive regular personalized emails from Amazon with suggestions on books and other products can sign up for a service called Amazon.com Delivers. Amazon also uses wish lists and suggestive selling. When a visitor is reviewing the details of a particular item, the Amazon database performs a comparison of the chosen item with the company's inventory and comes back with a short list of similar products that other members have purchased. 

Yahoo! is so far at the forefront of free personalized Web pages that many now depend on it to complete their daily tasks. It offers almost everything a person might need online and it can all be customized to a user's specifications.

My Yahoo! lets users select everything they want to see on their own Web pages. Business news on Microsoft or Sun, updated stock quotes for Intel, the TrailBlazers' score from last night and weather in Des Moines. Even a daily horoscope can be placed on a personal page.

Yahoo! Maps allows users to get driving directions from their homes or offices to anywhere in the U.S. Yahoo! Finance keeps track of stocks as well as linking to personal bank accounts. It also provides a bill paying service. Yahoo! Calendar keeps track of events and special days, while Yahoo! Travel lets users plan their vacations. The user makes his own choices.

While your business may not require all the bells and whistles offered on these big players' sites, they can serve as inspiration.

Ask yourself some important questions, including: What does your business require in the way of personalization? Unfortunately, creating a personal experience for your current and potential customers does not have a one-size-fits-all solution.

A very basic system that stores information and feeds tailored content could cost between $10,000 to 15,000–and offers only the basics in features. From there, the sky is the limit. Larger companies with immense Web presence can spend hundreds of thousands at a minimum, but more likely millions of dollars, to achieve a desirable level of customer satisfaction and interaction. Fortunately, there are also ways to personalize for free–by piggybacking on the knowledge and success of better established companies that can add value to your Web site–regardless of your business' size.

Even the smallest companies with a Web presence can benefit from personalization by fostering a sense of community, by getting customers to rely on the information, services and products on your site. If the cost of creating and installing the latest personalization features is prohibitive, a more economical approach would be to co-brand with another e-business that can use what you have to offer, or vice versa. An example of that would be co-branding or associate programs offered by most well-known companies. Buy And Hold (http://buyandhold.com ) has chosen to partner with Barnes & Noble (http://bn.com) as the bookseller of choice on the online brokerage's site. The link, however, is designed to be unobtrusive and inconspicuous. When visitors to Buy And Hold want to purchase a book on personal finance suggested by the site, for example, the book can be purchased through Barnes & Noble with a click of the mouse. Most Buy And Hold visitors will only notice that they are offered the convenience of buying a suggested book right from the online brokerage's Web site.

With a little creativity, just about any business can deliver personalization to customers online, but it depends on the needs of your customers and clients. Some industries may not require a high level of personalization. Industries that are more oriented toward face-to-face contact, such as law practices and residential construction companies, will probably require less, if any, personalization on their Web sites. Do some research and determine your customers' needs before spending inordinate amounts of time and money to provide the latest trends in personalization only to discover it's useless to your Web site visitors.

            Two essential questions you may want to ask yourself before implementing a plan of attack:

 

1.     Does this provide a benefit to my customers? Will it be of use to my customers and is it something they will actually take advantage of on a regular basis? Your company is making an investment to provide the personalization, so get your money's worth.

2.     Does this benefit your company overall? Will this result in an increase in revenue? Will the new features on your Web site attract new customers? Create a bigger community on the site? Are the gains long term through a value-added feature, but with the possibility of a short term loss?

 

By doing a little soul searching about your business goals, as well as looking into the next generation of personalization tools, you have the power to build customer loyalty and increase both new and recurring traffic to your Web site.

 

Richard Barker is manager of Internet solutions at Schraff Group, a fully integrated e-business agency with a successful 22-year history. The firm leverages its expertise in advertising, public relations, Internet application development and Internet business consulting to offer its clients truly integrated business and marketing support. Schraff Group is Orange County's leading firm for hot ramp Internet start-ups, as well as established companies with e-business initiatives. Additional information can be accessed at http://schraff.com.

 

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