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

This shows Algernon K. Floom that you understand that all drill buyers are not cut from the same cloth. You recognize that he has specific needs, and you've made an effort to address those needs by offering information, pricing, or services tailored to his market segment. You may not be drilling down far, but at least you're drilling.

Another way to show customers you're trying to do something just for them is to walk them through a series of questions about their requirements. Suppose your company sells just one product: an extra quiet high-speed drill that can be used equally well by right- and left-handed dentists and is bundled with a disposable spittoon. You could describe the drill in just that way on your home page and invite dentists of all stripes to click to buy. Or you could have the site lead them through the following questions:

Do you use your cavity drill on a daily basis or only a couple of times a week?

Do you use your drill with your right hand or your left?

Do you have your patients wear headphones or not?

Do you prefer your high-speed drill to include the wrist-mounted spittoon or not?

Instead of offering a single product description, you would then provide several different product descriptions, each emphasizing some combination of drill features identified as desirable by the customer's responses. A right-handed dentist would arrive at a page describing the drill as right-handed. (The fact that it is equally well suited for lefties is unimportant.) Dentists with their own stationary spittoons would read a product description that doesn't even nod to the wrist-mounted accessory, which you simply wouldn't ship. Suddenly, it seems as though you have many products instead of just one, and that your sole interest in life is making sure customers choose the product that is best for them.

Asking questions accomplishes two things. First, as customers click away at their options, they produce data-rich server logs that you can squeeze for market research. Second, when customers shape their requirements, they generally feel better about their purchases. If someone goes into a store looking for a digital camera and the salesclerk immediately recommends the RX7-11, the customer suspects that that model produces the biggest commission. But if the clerk asks questions about why the customer wants the camera and how it will be used and then recommends the RX7-11, the customer is comfortable with the choice.

You've Got Mail (from Me)

My last column explained the value of creating personal pages for your best customers. (See " A Fine and Private Page," Inc. Technology, 1999, No. 4.) That strategy works great for sites serving a handful of corporate accounts, but if you sell to hundreds or thousands of customers, it becomes unmanageable. An alternative is to send those hundreds or thousands of customers newsletters that address them, if not as individuals, then at least as members of discrete and cherished groups. This is a case where a little technology -- specifically, the software that customers use to sign up for the newsletter on your site and the software that manages the mailing list -- goes a long way.

Like most personalization efforts, newsletters require segmentation. Identify the ways various customers use your goods and services. Think about the different problems they're solving, the different industries they're in, and the different reasons they do business with you. Use those distinctions to divide your customers into groups -- and then keep your eyes peeled for news and ideas pertinent to those groups. Your basic newsletter will probably provide information of value to everyone. But if you can include some advice on finding prime office space in the letters that go out to dentists in private practice, and notices of institutional discounts on X-ray film for hospital procurement staff, your customers will know you're thinking about them.

When customers shape their requirements, they generally feel better about their purchases.

Does that mean you have to send out 4 or 8 or 32 full-fledged newsletters a month? No. Sometimes it's more effective to shoot off snippets as you stumble across them. Just make sure anything you direct toward your customers' mailboxes is really interesting or else you'll risk becoming a pest. How do you know when you're hurting, not helping? When customers unsubscribe.

If that type of customization sounds like more than your Web-hosting service can handle, you might consider some products and services that allow you to get personal without going personally bankrupt.

MessageMedia's UnityMail ( www.messagemedia.com), for example, is a Web site that assumes the burden of handling newsletter mailings and other customer-segmentation tasks. Customers will still go to your site to sign up for your newsletter and select the subjects they want to hear about, but you'll construct the sign-up form on MessageMedia's digital turf. The service handles addressing and distribution for about $500 a month (plus a $2,500 initial setup fee).

Entice, a software product from Multiactive Software, lets you drag and drop your way to answer-dependent paths so that if visitors express interest in the bagels and the jam rather than in the croissants and the jam, your site can also recommend the cream cheese. In addition, Entice sends your customers different E-mail messages according to where on your site they touched down. (Someone landing on the bagel page, for example, might find in her mailbox an announcement of a sale on slicers.) And you can use the product's nifty dashboard to observe customers' real-time peregrinations around your site. Entice costs about $25,000 for the initial setup, which isn't bad when you consider that it also includes an E-commerce engine.

If that's still too rich, you might try the combination of GuestTrack and GT/Mail ( www.guesttrack.com), which together offer many of the same personalization features that Multiactive Software does but for only $6,000. What's the catch? GuestTrack is a developer's tool -- -albeit an easy-to-use one -- so you have to be ready, willing, and able to build your own SQL databases and E-commerce applications.

Of course, all of these tools merely give function to the form that you provide. And that form derives from an intimate understanding of your customers as individuals, rather than as some undifferentiated, money-waving mass. No, you may not be able to afford to treat each customer like a king. But if you treat them all like archdukes, chances are they'll go away satisfied.

Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing, in Santa Barbara, Calif., is a speaker, consultant, and author of the books World Wide Web Marketing and Customer Service on the Internet (John Wiley & Sons).