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Website personalisation: What's bad, what's good and what's next?

22nd Sep 2014
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In recent years, online retail has become a far more informative and interactive environment. From multi-angle pictures to zoom-in features to rich media such as video, etailers are going to great lengths to help consumers to really understand the products they are buying without ever having to actually visit the store.

However, other innovations have not so much sought to replicate the real world shopping experience, but to provide something superior, capitalising on the benefits of the digital environment to tailor the store to the individual customer. And there are several ways in which etailers are personalising their online stores.

“The most simplistic way is remembering personal information about a user and replaying it to them each time they return to the site,” says Jamie Brighton, strategic marketing EMEA at Adobe Marketing Cloud.

“The next level of personalisation is using information that can be gleaned about the user in the current session to make the experience more relevant. Data such as where the user came from, where they are located, which campaign they responded to, along with browsing behaviour, can be remembered across sessions and a rich picture can be constructed of the users’ wants and needs. 

“These aspects all lead to the building of a profile that can be used to create a relationship with the individual – with the profile becoming richer the more the user interacts. A user profile can be used to create business and brand rules for cross and up-sell, e.g. ‘show product X to people who have shown interest in or bought product Y’. It can also be used to power automated behavioural targeting and algorithmic recommendations.”

Jaye Taylor, marketing executive at RETAIL ASSIST, adds: “Retailers have the ability to segment consumer data making it much easier to not only group consumers according to their likes and dislikes, but filter them as individuals. It adds another dimension to online shopping, helping customers locate relevant products quickly, and ultimately leading to further sales.  It provides customers with a more target-driven online shopping experience, offering a selection of specially filtered items, by brand, colour and style, in tune with individual tastes.

“Adding features  to your website such as ‘save for later’ or ‘add to wish list’ are a great way to see what individual customers like and are interested in, enabling personalisation, tailoring website content to suit the individual shopper. Creating a bespoke view of the same website for every customer makes them as individuals feel special.  Product images and site banners can be edited depending on the customer’s preference creating a fully interactive and exclusive experience.  Throughout the industry there is a move to behavioural targeting and it can only be a good thing, helping to keep customers happy and loyal to the brand, checking out with larger shopping baskets.” 

Andy Walker, UK MD at Innometrics notes: “A personalised website improves the customer experience and demonstrates to the consumer that the brand is proactively making an effort to understand their needs. Ultimately, an effectively personalised website is a mirror-reflection of the consumer and this will increase loyalty and move the brand to an integral part of a consumer’s world. For example, Three Mobile offers personalised promotions on its website based on each customer’s online behaviour and interaction.”


However, not all web personalisation strikes a chord with customers. A global consumer survey by Adobe, for instance, revealed that 42% of respondents said they were ‘neutral’ about the value of personalised recommendations online, suggesting that they were either unaware of the personalised content or didn’t appreciate it. Only a third of the respondents said personalisation was valuable, with a quarter claiming that it had limited value or no value at all. 

A separate study from Lyris similarly found that opinion was divided about the value of personalised web pages, with 37% saying they appreciate this kind of targeting compared to 31% who said they don’t. In particular, it appears that judgement about the value of personalised websites is being clouded by bad practices from some vendors – practices that could end up doing more harm than good to the customer relationship if not checked.

“In the rush to personalise web experiences, I think a lot of technologies have been rushed in without thinking how an individual will respond,” says John Pincott, managing director of Shopatron. “Sites can quickly be overloaded with so many ‘personalisation’ features, that the consumer is overwhelmed. Imagine how a new shopper feels when visiting a new site for the first time, and they are immediately presented with a popup region selector to determine geographical preference, then before you can answer another popup asks for your name and email for 10% off your first purchase. And before you can close that window, a third popup asks you if you would provide feedback in a survey about your experiences once you’ve completed your purchase.

“Whilst each of these technologies are ‘personal’ in the sense they want to collect personal data from you in the name of delivering a more tailored experience, most consumers will view that as anything but personal. Retailers who implement these solutions need to put on their consumer hats and use what they’ve implemented to ensure that the user experience is smooth and personable.”

Walker is in agreement, adding: “There can be a temptation to ‘over-personalise.’  This can be intrusive and invasive for consumers. Companies should remember two golden rules: transparency and control; and this is something consumers are already demanding. They want to know ‘when are you personalising my experience?’ and ‘what information do you have about me that drove that experience?’ This expectation has been proliferated by the use of social networks and personalised online services, such as Spotify.” 

So how can etailers get personalisation right? If there are some bad practices being deployed, what are the best practices?

Start simple

“A typical error brands make when beginning to personalise their websites is trying to do too much at once; start simple and make sure that you test every aspect of your personalisation strategy,” advises Brighton. “Firstly, start simple. Add data sources to the profile in phases, starting with the referrer and campaign data, then add in website behaviour, progressing to offline and enterprise data.”

Tailor for the device

“One of the easiest things you can do is tailor the webpage for the device,” recommends Mike Harris, VP international at Monetate. “One of the main reasons why customers will leave your site is difficulty navigating -- there is a huge difference between what is easily navigated on a PC versus a mobile device. It’s no longer enough to have just one site designed for PC, the numbers of people accessing websites on their mobile is increasing dramatically.”

Define your customer

“A crucial stage during the personalisation journey is to define you target markets specific personas,” says Taylor. “This can be based on any relevant criteria such as the areas of the site they click on, frequency of visits and whether they are a previous customer. Few retailers offer tailored incentives to loyal customers often not following up on learned data and failing to react to returning visitors, resulting in lost sales.”

Harris adds: “Acknowledge that customers have visited your site before and make them feel valued. Greet them with a personalised “Welcome Back” message and use their previous purchase history to guide them towards categories and products relevant to them. Understand which browsers are good customers as opposed to those that need more attention and make sure they have the appropriate experience.”

Make it easy for the customer

“Identify top searches and make sure the products and services people look for most often are prominent and easy to reach,” advises Harris. “Change categories and menus to fit in with customers rather than the way you categorise products as a business. Test different layouts and measure which encourages the customer to stay on your website and engage with your products - focus on providing the best customer experience.”

Listen to the data

“Not listening to the data is undoubtedly going to hinder the success of a website,” warns Brighton. “The homepage is often the most prominent part of the site but you might have a bigger impact on a product page or through personalising the conversion process. For example, insurance provider More>Than listened to the type of pet being insured on the pet insurance site and reacted to the findings by displaying an image of the breed on each step of the quote, leading to the buy process seeing a 4% lift in completed quotes.”


“Test everything from the layout of the site to the conversion processes, to make sure they are all optimal,” recommends Brighton. “Test the targeting and always have a control group to show that what you are doing is having a positive impact. It sounds obvious that existing customers should get a different experience to first time visitors, but what is the business value to the brand? Testing also means that you can build a business case to do even more testing and targeting, and therefore personalisation.”

Harris adds: “It’s important to set a benchmark to make sure the results of any changes you make to your website can be measured and repeated. Begin with small changes and focus on achieving a specific outcome. Most importantly, look at web analytics and use the data intelligently to minimise customer complaints, enhance the customer journey and increase conversions.”

Don’t be afraid of automation

“Some people run a mile when they hear the word algorithm but using automated targeting can drive massive gains to the business and free up time to be more strategic in other areas of the website,” says Brighton.

Final thoughts

What is clear, is that in spite of the reservations of some customers, and of poor practices from some brands, personalisation will play an increasingly important role in the ecommerce environment going forward.

“As visitors navigate their favourite websites, as they browse different categories and products, their unique preferences become apparent and businesses can quickly learn what colours, products, price points and sizes their customers want,” says Anthony Wilkey, regional director, account management group at SmartFocus. “With personalisation, businesses can quickly begin to predict products that may be related, leading to much more relevant product suggestions.

“Marketers will increasingly be using technologies that look at the individual preferences and behaviours of millions of online customers and delivering targeted recommendations across all channels. Using this approach, businesses will be able to move beyond traditional segmentation-based marketing into personalised 1:1 marketing that boosts conversion rates, customer satisfaction and loyalty.”

Big rewards lie ahead for businesses – if they get it right.

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