I-Commerce Aims for the Personal Touch

As competition intensifies in the world of business-to-consumer Internet commerce, the focus has narrowed down to twin goals: attracting business and retaining customers. Executives in charge of I-commerce sites are under pressure to attract, retain, and increase the number of loyal customers to ensure consistent and robust revenue streams.

With the stakes so high, those who run I-commerce sites -- Webmasters, order fulfillment departments, CTOs, and the network, product, and marketing managers -- are caught up in the endeavor of perfecting I-commerce.

One method of perfecting I-commerce is to personalize the experience for each and every Web shopper that visits your site. Personalization promises a commerce site that will give customers exactly what they want, when they want it. It strives to understand the customer's desires and instantly satisfy them. Bottom-line impacts can be significant as well, substantially increasing overall revenue.

Applied in a savvy and well-considered fashion, personalization tools can go a long way toward creating the kinds of strong relationships between customers and businesses that CEOs so desperately crave. They can help executives develop strategies to create more effective one-to-one relationships with customers, heightening their sense of "buy-in" to the site and boosting corporate revenues.

But there is a delicate balance to be achieved with personalization. For example, most consumers do not appreciate receiving unsolicited offers about what they may want to purchase based on past behavior. Although such offers may prove lucrative for a business in the short term, they do not make for a desirable long-term strategy.

Optimizing solutions

As important as security is, choosing the personalization tools that fit your business objectives is just as critical. CTOs should take into account what they are trying to accomplish, how realistic their goals are, and how much personal and technical resources will be required to maintain a workable system.

If your company desires a high degree of control and customization, and has the programming resources, then you might want to acquire a development platform such as Allaire Corp.'s Allaire Spectra or Art Technology Group's Dynamo e-Business Platform.

For those who need quick implementation but want to do some degree of in-house integration with other applications and systems -- such as databases, CRM (customer relationship management), and the like -- a prepackaged tool might be best, such as Blaze Software's Blaze Advisor Solutions Suite, BroadVision's One-To-One Enterprise, or Vignette's V/5 Lifecycle Personalization Server. If you're at a company that doesn't have the resources to deploy personalization, there is always the outsourced ASP (application service provider) option, such as Net Perceptions' Core Personalization Technology and Personalization Network.

Net Perceptions' Core Personalization Technology offers a predictive and preference-based personalization solution as a Windows NT/Solaris software application, with specific modules for personalized recommendations, e-mail campaigns, call center, cross-selling, and analysis/reporting. It also offers personalization as an outsourced service through its Personalization Network. Its tools use advanced algorithms and models that take into account users' behavioral patterns so as to predict what a particular customer might want to see or buy.

On the other hand, personalization engines such as Blaze's Advisor Solutions Suite provide sophisticated rules-based capabilities to cater to certain demographic attributes as the user explores the site. Rules-based tools enable I-merchants to demographically pinpoint groups of users.

Another option would be to use a development platform such as the Allaire Spectra, where personalization is not so much the product focus, but rather is a component of an overall e-business architecture.

The extent to which personalization products and services link to back-end systems, business rules, and call centers will vary. The move by any online storefront should be toward linking the personalized Web site experience to its customer support system.

Business impact?

Implementing a personalization method is just the beginning of the customer experience. Measuring the effectiveness of personalization techniques and what they mean to the bottom line is far from an exact science.

Many high-profile sites rely heavily on customer responses and complaints to fine-tune or overhaul portions or entire sections of sites. CTOs and site managers should take customer feedback very seriously because, no matter how one-to-one you may think your site experience, you could be far off target from what customers actually want.

Given that personalization is still a nascent technology, managers, particularly the CTO or other high-level executives in charge of the site, should monitor user feedback, analyze logs, and keep up-to-date on sales trends. It is far too early to put personalization on autopilot. Businesses should remember that personalization is not about maximizing revenue, but about building long-term relationships with customers. The revenues should blossom and follow as a result.

Joe Paone (paone44@att.net) is a Philadelphia-based technology journalist who has been covering the industry since 1991.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Web site personalization

Business Case: Web site personalization can enable I-commerce sites to develop closer, more fruitful relationships with each customer. In addition, personalization tools can help corporations develop more useful products and product configurations as well as engender customer loyalty all while increasing a company's bottom-line revenue.

Technology Case: Personalization solutions should be integrated with CRM systems, the call center, order fulfillment, back-end databases, and other aspects of the enterprise. Personalization engines also must be monitored routinely.

Pros:

+ Increases customer loyalty

+ Clarifies customer needs and preferences+ Helps sharpen product developmentCons:

- Makes ROI calculation difficult

- May drive away customers with privacy concerns- Requires dedicated, consistent attention from managers and programmers

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