The Ultimate One-to-One Tool
By Irene Cherkassky and Jeffrey Lattner
Marketing know-how and technical savvy combine, bringing the Web closer to a one-to-one experience.
In just a few short years, Web personalization has transformed from a novelty into a discipline. Although many marketers still are new to the intricacies of personalization, the promise of achieving a truly one-to-one dialogue with customers is driving both strategic and technical e-commerce innovation.
Back to Basics
Optimizing personalization on the Web is more than seeking out the latest technical bells and whistles. In fact, effective personalization is grounded in the basics of good marketing techniques. "Personalization has moved [away] from being something that was talked about as a technology or something that a technology provider would sell just like a feature—whether that's content management systems or a stand-alone personalization layer," describes Karen McGrane, executive director, user experience for Seattle-based Avenue A/Razorfish. "Marketers today are using some of the techniques that they might use in other mediums to tailor their sites for different audiences to serve up different messages at different times, and they're doing that in a more focused, more subtle way."
Phil Sandler, senior vice president, director of interactive, Wunderman New York, for example, advises marketers to use technical resources to work toward a holistic view of their on-site campaigns. "We conduct full segmentation of who we think our best prospects are," he describes, "then go out into the market with certain assumptions about who our best responders are going to be, based on our [in-house] modeling."
That information then is married with response data—including who visited the site, what the Web logs are revealing and what the tagged paths on the site are showing about the behavior from one portion of the site to the next. Those combined disparate sources of information are viewed together to get a full perspective on what worked and what didn't. The information then is set as a benchmark for future personalization efforts.
A key part of this continual process is keeping a dialogue going with customers and prospects. Sandler explains, "You should incent the person to stay in contact with you. Provide offers for updating profiles, and every so often ask the user or the prospect what you could be doing to make their experience even more relevant."
An example of Wunderman using incentives to garner, then customize, customer information is a campaign executed for The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants designed to attract students to the accounting profession. The agency used a substantial survey about the students' interests and career aspirations and turned that into an ongoing e-mail dialogue that drove them to an engaging site experience. The site addressed students' specific career interests; where they stood in terms of their stage of career development; and guided them through the different rights of passage toward taking the certified public accountant exam. "Personalization, even to the slightest extent, is cost of entry," notes Sandler. "Because personalization, in my mind, leads to relevance."
Creating a Persona
Persona development, an already-established technique used in more traditional marketing research, also has emerged as an effective method through which marketers can go beyond site visitors' demographic and psychographic information to a deeper understanding of why they are going to a site and what they want to accomplish.
Interactive agencies such as Avenue A/Razorfish and Columbus, Ohio-based Resource Interactive use persona research to more effectively determine the features and content that would best serve each type of customer. Personas are created based on qualitative and ethnographic research, says McGrane. She describes: "We go into people's homes or their offices, visit wherever they are using the Web and try to learn a little bit more about their motivations and their desires—what they want to get out of a Web site."
Additional quantitative studies done via surveys or online data capture techniques help to shape idealized archetypal portraits of site users. Avenue A/Razorfish supplements these findings with nonpersonal, identifiable demographic information, such as gender or frequency of site visits, via its ad-serving application, Atlas.
For example, using a combination of personas layered with database information, a financial marketer can achieve a deeper understanding of who its customers are, how often they visit the site, as well as understand what they're accomplishing on the site. It then can use that knowledge to deliver more relevant content.
"If it's a retirement site or a personal finance site, we can serve up different messages to visitors in their 30s who might be building their 401(k) or saving to buy a home, and serve up different messages to someone in their 50s, as they're approaching retirement," describes McGrane.
Resource Interactive's studio director, Tip Rose, notes that persona development also calls for some hard choices on the part of marketers who must determine which visitors they really want to target. "That means diving into your data and making sure that you're targeting your most valuable customers," Rose says. He suggests creating between four to seven personas and building your site around those customer sets. Too many personas dilute the process and fragment marketing efforts.
There is a range of steps and solutions available to marketers on their path to site personalization. Rose feels that the increased interest in personas in the context of Web personalization in part is due to e-commerce application providers—such as Cambridge, Mass-based ATG—now being able to feed that information into their applications to help them optimize the overall Web experience.
"People are looking at navigation, time spent on sites—very common site analytics—and delivering content that way," says Reid Carr, president of San Diego-based Internet presence management company Red Door Interactive. To jump-start your personalization efforts, he suggests investing in analytics to enable better understanding of how different site visitors use your online content. Red Door uses HBX from WebSideStory to perform customer segmentation.
Carr also sees an increased interest in geo-targeting. He says, "I think a lot more businesses are going to start using it as geography plays a more important role on the Web."
Some marketers also now are relying on behavioral targeting to facilitate a more robust and intelligent site-visitor experience. Solutions from such companies as San Diego-based N-Space Technology Inc. use the visitor's clickstream data collected automatically by the site to offer automated, real-time personalization. Carr cites this as a more complex solution that requires a greater level of commitment. "That application will have to run for a certain amount of time, and you have to have the right amount of users," he describes. "Because if you don't have a large enough sample size, you can deliver the wrong stuff. It's time consuming, but the technology's great."
Currently, marketers most at ease with optimizing personalization tactics include retailers and the travel industry, according to McGrane. The trend, however, favors ever-growing expectations on the part of the public, and therefore increasing efforts from marketers. Blogs, photo blogs and Wikis already allow consumers to contribute their own content to the Internet and, in essence, become publishers. Matt Grover, director of application development for Resource Interactive, notes, "These sorts of content-enabling tools are making consumers more and more part of the Web experience." He foresees users will come to expect the same sort of interaction on e-commerce sites.
Additionally, both Sandler and Carr see real simple syndication (RSS) shaping the personalization landscape in the near future. Carr envisions customers choosing to receive content from marketers on a continuous basis, and being able to do so by grabbing a marketer's RSS feed and putting it in their inbox.
Sandler adds, "As content becomes more portable, the channels in which you choose to consume that content are becoming more personalized." Video and text feeds for your iPod and cell phone are just two examples of that trend. And as content travels, it'll be increasingly important to not only personalize it, but also allow consumers to control the cadence and the way that content is consumed.
Carnival Cruises to Personalization
A revamp of the cruise line marketer's Web site has created a more compelling customer experience.
Creating a relevant e-commerce experience for your customers and prospects is no longer merely an ideal or gimmick. In fact, most marketers increasingly see Web personalization simply as the cost of doing business. When the world's largest cruise operator, Carnival Cruise Lines, decided to redesign its Web site, personalization was a key component. Serving as many as 3.3 million passengers annually, Carnival understood that a more personalized e-commerce experience would allow it to deliver richer, better-timed and targeted content to all its customers, thereby boosting customer satisfaction and Carnival's own bottom line.
The Voyage to Redesign
Working with Seattle-based interactive agency Avenue A/Razorfish, Carnival's personalization efforts were part and parcel of a complete Web site overhaul, incorporating new creative, search capabilities and the integration of the company's reservation systems. "We had to revamp the Web site for many reasons," says Diana Rodriquez-Velazquez, director, Internet and database marketing for Carnival Cruise Lines. "From a system integration perspective, it was time to do an overhaul," she says. "At the time, we also had a need for content management, and we just needed to better brand the site. … And since we were basically going under the hood, we did a very thorough analysis of what we needed."
Carnival needed a better way to bring targeted content to its customers in the various stages of the purchase cycle. Prior to the overhaul, all Carnival Web site visitors were treated as prospects, whether they had a prior relationship with the cruise marketer or not. The focus was on selling a cruise. Past guests and those who already had booked their cruise needed to navigate the site to find relevant information.
"We didn't want people to get buyer's remorse," notes Rodriquez-Velazquez, which could be the case if the customer booked a trip to Alaska, but then comes to the Web site only to see a half-price promotion for a cruise to the Western Caribbean. Following the revamp, customers still have to navigate the site to find pricing, even if already booked on another voyage, however, the site now delivers much more relevant content to fit each customer's particular stage in the purchasing process. "A big part of it was that we wanted to reduce cancellation rates—and we have," says Rodriquez-Velazquez.
Carnival's understanding of the way its customers used its site also dictated its choice of a personalization solution. "When you're coming to our site, you're coming for a limited number of weeks," explains Rodriquez-Velazquez. Typically, site visitors come to Carnival.com to do initial research and comparison pricing. They may then come back to book their trip, and visit the site a few more times before they sail. Eventually, they may come to the site as a return customer. "We weren't going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a personalization tool for someone who may visit us between two and 10 times in a very concentrated time range."
To meet Carnival's specific needs, Avenue A/Razorfish used Microsoft's campaign management software in conjunction with its Commerce Server database as the backbone for the personalization feature for the site. "They exploited the database and the profiles and made something that really worked for us," says Rodriquez-Velazquez.
The Personal Touch
Analysis of Carnival's customer base identified three customer segments—prospects, booked guests and past guests. With this, the marketer and interactive agency then worked together to establish the extensive business rules that shaped the design of the site. The entire retooling process took a year, and the revamped site launched in April 2004. Now the site is divided up into a series of quadrants that display relevant content/ campaigns based on the information gleaned from Carnival's customer database.
For prospects, the focus is on creating a dynamic on-site experience that emphasizes Carnival as "The Fun Ships," which is the brand's motto. Carnival wanted to make it very easy for prospects to access information they need. "Our number one goal [was to] provide enough information to make a purchase decision, regardless of the channel that you book," says Rodriquez-Velazquez.
To access pricing information, all visitors are asked to register with the site. Requested information includes name, address, telephone and e-mail address, as well as whether the site visitor has sailed with Carnival in the past. That gets the personalization ball rolling with the system software now able to refer to the passenger's database profile to match content to needs. The registration information allows the marketer to start targeting prospects with geo-specific offers. "If I live in New York and have never been on a cruise before, and I go to the Carnival Web site, I'm going to get a very different experience than someone who lives in Florida, who has been on other Carnival cruises in the past," describes Karen McGrane, executive director, user experience for Avenue A/Razorfish.
Rodriquez-Velazquez says the request for visitor registration has raised some eyebrows as to whether this gathering of information prior to providing pricing details conforms to best practices. "It works for us. Our abandon rate is not high, our opt-out is nominal," says Rodriquez-Velazquez. "It's a great source of lead generation and allows us to do this personalization."
When the prospect searches for pricing, Carnival is able to store some of the search criteria and campaign against that information. And once the guest has booked the cruise, Carnival uses personalization to emphasize the anticipated experience prior to the cruise. When a customer logs on with a booking, he or she is greeted by name and the site features a countdown to the day of his or her cruise. The system then serves up information on relevant value-added services, such as providing a pre-embarkation form, which must be completed by all passengers prior to getting to the pier. If an embarkation form has been completed, that action is flagged as complete and the system serves up the next level of content, such as information on booking shore excursions.
"Another good reason to have done personalization is we knew shortly thereafter we were going to be selling shore excursions prior to voyage," says Rodriquez-Velazquez. "The only way we could do that is to know that you're booked." Likewise, if shore excursions already are booked, the software serves other content, such as how to order champagne and flowers for the cabin.
Past customers can log onto the site to view their cruise history and exclusive offers. Based on that history, content may come up to suggest itineraries the customer may be interested in. "We even know if you've booked and cancelled," notes Rodriquez-Velazquez. "That's another segment, so we're serving you a win-back strategy message."
On the Horizon
Of the redesign process, Rodriquez-Velazquez says: "We've had content management; we've had search; we have a new database; we have new infrastructure and personalization. And the personalization … we've been very pleased with it." The customer content capture driven by the Web site also has allowed for better-targeted e-mail marketing campaigns. "I'm seeing double-digit increase in the open rate and clickthrough rate, and even driving [customers] all the way to the booking engine," says Rodriquez-Velazquez. Currently, the site gets more than 100,000 unique visitors on a daily basis.
Next on Carnival's to-do list is better synchronization of its online personalization efforts with its call center. "People like coming to your site, and once they update their information there, they expect everyone they call at that company to know [that information] two minutes after they log off," says Rodriquez-Velazquez. However, personalization also means that customer service representatives will not be viewing exactly the same Web pages as those that have been generated for each site visitor. "We've gotten much better, but out of the gate we thought we'd taken care of everything and we hadn't.
The marketer currently is in the process of a cosmetic redesign to make even better use of campaign management and personalization elements. Expected to launch in early 2006, many of those efforts will be centered on improving prospect conversion.
Carnival Cruise Lines at a Glance
Number of ships: 21
Number of annual passengers: approximately 3.3 million
Guest profile: 30 percent are under age 35; 40 percent are between 35 and 55; 30 percent are over 55
Number of children carried annually: approximately 500,000
Number of seniors (55 and older) carried annually: approximately 1 million
Personalization in a Search World
Strategies for SEM-friendly dynamic page generation
O ver the past five years, marketing and advertising have undergone a radical paradigm shift. Aided by the proliferation of broadband, wireless access and the rise of search engines, it's now the prospect who seeks the business. With the media in their hands, consumers determine when, where and how to interact with a brand. In turn, marketers must meet consumers at their point of interest and promote a personalized experience.
As a company's Web infrastructure continues to grow, it needs a proper foundation upon which to build a personalized end-user experience. Improved production efficiency through the emergence of content infrastructure—especially when compared to human, non-automated alternatives—is needed to realize the benefit of these personalized solutions. Harnessing these valuable resources through dynamic Web site delivery systems that incorporate a content management solution, an internal search utility and a robust analytics tool allows companies to drive increased revenue, tighten client relationships and lower costs.
Managing content "information" —all digital assets, broadcast and offline collateral—efficiently through push vs. pull marketing is the answer. Traditional advertising, such as television, contextual and radio, are viewed as push-marketing rather than the pull-marketing associated with search promotions. Consumers control the messaging by searching and then clicking on the displayed marketing message that best fits their interest, all the while following a sequence of targeted information. And, in return they are receiving a personalized experience.
When Content Management Is at Odds With Search Visibility
Companies using content management solutions (CMS) now are attempting to use this process to cover records management, digital asset management and collaboration, as well as the typical document management, Web content management, and imaging—all of which contribute to the personalization of the end-user experience.
Content management connects end users to the content they're requesting while allowing the authors and managers of this information to maintain complete organization and control of the company's overall Web site and its content. While the CMS strategy provides faster delivery of information to users and spreads publishing permissions throughout the organization by facilitating the creation, storing, sharing, updating and approval processes, it does not produce a search-friendly environment. Personalized customer relationship management (CRM) publishing engines often are incorporated as part of a broader personalized solution. These publishing engines tend to use a form of session tracking for transaction control and user session management to systematize consumer personalization. This is important to keep in mind when an organization is developing an online presence because search engine spiders don't accept Web pages that include forms of session tracking appended to the URL string.
Search engine spiders don't regularly crawl Web sites with session/action tracking or session IDs appended to the URL string because these elements are dynamically generated for each unique visitor. Session IDs are given to the browser when the user first accesses the site. They sometimes are sent via a cookie to the Web browser. Should the browser accept cookies, the session ID then is recorded and retrieved throughout the browser session.
Search engine spiders and browsers that do not accept cookies often will encounter URLs with the session ID appended. This causes a spider to think it's continually viewing new pages, when in reality it's just indexing the same pages. Incorporating the knowledge of a natural search engine optimization agency will provide a solution that delivers search-friendly pages to the search engines and personalized content to unique audiences. One such solution involves setting if/then statements at the server level, which perform one of two functions:
IF search engine spider; THEN crawl the site with session tracking turned off.
IF end user; THEN activate session tracking.
In certain situations, a session state is needed to maintain site integrity. By modifying the statement to set a default session specific for search engine spiders, the site enables the search engine spider to crawl the content of the pages. For example:
IF search engine spider; THEN set session state to = 00001.
IF end user; THEN activate session tracking.
Other forms of action-tracking techniques monitor the consumer's path through a Web site. This navigational path tracking appends additional parameters or name value pairs to the URL depending on the path the consumer takes while navigating the Web site. Search engines can have problems with the number of parameters or name value pairs that fall after the "?" within the URL structure. Each character separated by an ampersand (&) constitutes a parameter or name value pair. Search engine spiders will crawl 100 percent of URLs with three parameters—but the number of URLs crawled decreases as the number of parameters increases.
A solution to this challenge could be reached by rewriting the URL strings. Rewrites are useful on highly dynamic sites where URLs have multiple parameters. This reduction places the information into a directory structure, making it easier for the spiders to follow while the keywords in the URL string add value to the page.
SEM-friendly Content Optimization Tactics
Internal search utilities are needed for the consequent demand for the organization of content retrieval and personalization solutions. Search utilities enable consumers to quickly locate what they're searching for within several thousand documents located in a company's resource library. It's essential that the search utility be tailored to match each consumer's specific business objectives and search needs.
While the majority of content management solutions incorporate some form of search functionality, they typically are limited to keyword search and manual metadata classification. Access to information within these resource libraries often is out of context. The growth of content management is imperative, and the integration of Web portals and other applications—including records management, digital asset management and advanced internal utility or search engine appliances—is needed for unified access to information across all resources to increase productivity and consumer personalization.
Implementing a search engine or software solution alone does not guarantee consumers will find the information they are seeking. You need to properly optimize company data and information so that it can be found within corporate Internet and Intranet environments. This will increase productivity, enhance effectiveness, improve consumer personalization for site satisfaction and foster ROI.
For example, a leading financial services company sparked an online search frenzy with a national identity theft television campaign. The problem was that it did not have its commercial media digitized for search engine accessibility. By digitizing its television commercials along with additional content to support identity theft searches, the firm was able to maximize its online search visibility.
By synthesizing business and marketing objectives, natural search solutions can deliver branded Web presences in niche markets and drive the end user's interests to actions. The core of an interactive, personalized marketing solution is the main Web site. This also is the core of SEM, and therefore requires constant attention to ensure the site is meeting the ever-changing criteria of the leading search engines. The criteria involve certain design and architectural development techniques that generate "obstacles" for the search engine spiders.
Flash or image-intensive Web sites are visually appealing and can add to the personalization experience for visitors, but Web sites require content to support other elements within the HTML. Search engines need content to provide them with an understanding of the information that the Web site is intended to deliver to its end users. If spiders are crawling a site and there is no content delivered to them during the crawl, there is nothing to be indexed, and the search engines will deem the site not relevant and not assign it top placement in the search engine result pages.
For example, scripting often is created to personalize the consumer experience. The use of certain scripting creates obstacles for search engines because they require a user to perform an action by clicking unique personalized preference activities. Unlike humans, search engine spiders cannot perform actions such as selecting preference actions and, therefore, will not have access to crawl personalized offerings. Additionally, these scripts increase the overall page file size and provide additional code that search engines must crawl through to find the relevant content.
A natural search engine optimization agency can provide recommendations pertaining to the placement of specific scripts within individual files used for the aesthetic look and functionality of the Web site, as well as provide internal linking best practices. This will reduce the file size—as files are called into each page by the browser—and allow spiders to navigate individual pages more efficiently.
Other Site Functionality Considerations
A second area of opportunity within a Web site personalization solution involves link architecture for each subsection domain. Following internal linking architecture best practices and removing specific obstacles will result in high rankings and visibility while developing a unique personal experience for end users. It's critical that specifically targeted pages crucial to the product and service offerings be optimized for internal linking and keyword relevancy for high visibility.
Incorporating a Web analytics tool can further enhance a company's personalization solution. For any type of online marketing, a system is needed for tracking and measurement. It should be customized to focus on Web site visibility and consumer behavior. This allows a company to develop ongoing strategic modifications for continual search visibility in addition to personal experience implementations.
Pulling it All Together
Understanding search engine algorithms and how sites are listed in search results allows for the modification of certain optimization elements that will maximize visibility and promote a personalized solution. The outcome will be the creation of a search engine- and consumer-friendly architecture that attracts search engine spiders and users to areas of the site that may not have previously been available, resulting in a dramatic increase in rankings and targeted traffic that leads to higher conversions.
Where Spiders Get Stuck in Your Web
Don't let personalization goals for your Web site hamper your SEM results. The following are a few of the main obstacles for search engine spiders and some solutions to employ.
Obstacle: Appended session IDs.
Solution: Add if/then statements at the server level.
Obstacle: More than three parameters or value pairs in URLs.
Solution: Rewrite URLs to organize parameters/value pairs into a directory structure.
Obstacle: Scripting in Web files.
Solution: Better placement of scripting in files and better linking to reduce file size.
Unlike humans, search engine spiders can't perform actions such as selecting preference actions and, therefore, will not have access to crawl personalized offerings.
Jeffrey Lattner is optimization consultant at icrossing, a search engine optimization company in New York. He can be reached at (646) 346-8336 or email@example.com.