Web Wise: The Secrets of Winning Sites

Cheap personalization tools make every site visitor feel like an audience of one

When I go to the football stadium, I am one of tens of thousands of sports fans. When I go to the theater, I am one of hundreds of arts patrons. When I watch television, I am one of three or four family members. When I surf the Internet, I am alone.

The fact that each surfer is an island plays straight to the Internet's strengths. Dozens of software packages promise to personalize customers' experiences online so that the world revolves around them -- so long as they remain on your site anyway. Install BroadVision's One-to-One Enterprise ( www.broadvision.com), and you can track your visitors' every move, learn their interests, and serve them the ads and special offers most likely to make their hearts go pitty pat. Net Perceptions for E-commerce ( www.netperceptions.com) lets you perform the Amazonian feat of recommending products based on the purchases of customers with similar tastes and buying histories. Want an artificial-intelligence package that understands incoming E-mail and responds to customers' specific questions? SelectResponse from eHNC is there for you.

Of course, these products require that you shell out several million dollars for software, training, integration, and the personnel to run it all. I'm sorry, is that a problem?

Well, you might be able to do it yourself. Perhaps you already know how to use cookies to recognize your visitors and greet them by name. You might even be able to hook up a database that remembers customers' preferences and a dynamic server that creates Web pages for them on the fly. But watch out: you're likely to find yourself leading a team of learning-on-the-job developers who are macramÉ-ing together a seriously complex Web site with no documentation. That's not exactly a stable foundation for your E-commerce empire.

Fortunately, you can still achieve a little pampering on the cheap. The trick is to approach your customers as segments: ones small enough to suggest customization but not so minuscule that you need a bunch of software to manage them.

Mirror, Mirror on the Web

Visitors consider a Web site "personalized" when they see themselves there. That means you must avoid the broad brush when addressing your audience. Say you're the owner of a dental-supply company and Algernon K. Floom visits your site looking for a drill. You can't afford the software that would request from him the Algernon K. Floom story and henceforth greet him by name ("Hello there, ALGERNON K. FLOOM!") and show him only Algernon K. Floom­tailored offers. But suppose you present him with these options:

If you're in private practice, click here

If you're part of a dental co-op, click here

If you're a hospital purchasing agent, click here

If you're the matÉriel director of an HMO, click here