This guest post was written by Christopher Null, an award-winning journalist, editor and columnist. He was the founder of Mobile PC magazine in 2003, and continues to write regularly about technology and business for Wired, PC World and numerous other outlets.
Dear [USER] from [CITY], welcome to BobsWidgets.com!
When you greet customers by name in person, it can surprise and delight them.
A vocal crowd of digital marketers says the same holds true for computer-based greetings — that personalizing a web experience leads to higher customer loyalty and retention.
Technologies like Sailthru and Qubit make it easier than ever to personalize your website. But such features come with a caveat: Most consumers view the use of personal data on a website without permission as an invasion of privacy.
Even with permission, the more personalized a website becomes through the integration and display of private details, the more off-putting it can become. So how do you personalize your business’s web experience without getting creepy?
Step 1: Provide tools to customize content
“What we find to be working well is adapting the content of the page to user behavior without blunt statements regarding their name or occupation,” says Dimitri Semenikhin, founder of ship brokerage Yacht Harbour.
Visitors to the site can narrow their boat search with sliders and buttons that direct the size, age and type of ship they want to research. Listings update immediately. By sweeping away irrelevant information, the user gets a personalized experience that is completely anonymous.
Step 2: Geolocate
Visit HomeInsurance.com from Texas and the background image on the home page will show off longhorn cattle. Visit from Northern California, and you’ll see a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge instead.
The simple geolocation tactic, made possible by mapping a visitor’s IP address, makes an anonymous online company with a generic name feel much more like a local operation. DocSend’s John-Henry Scherck calls HomeInsurance’s trick “the most impressive personalization I’ve seen.”
Step 3: Ask for permission
Sherry Holub, a veteran web marketer and Creative Director for JVM Design, says, “Web personalization can make your customer feel more special and welcomed.”
But there has to be a basis, she insists. A business history. “When a customer buys an item, they have the option to create an account,” Holub says. “If they do so, when they log in the next time, there may be a personalized greeting.”
Getting permission shouldn’t be that difficult, says Ed Brancheau of SEO outfit Goozleology. “Simply do as you would in the physical world and ask them, ‘Do you mind if I call you Dave? I’d like to personalize our site to you.’ If they say yes, personalize your site. If no, don’t,” he says.
Step 4: Greet customers by name
“The most basic form of personalization is simply using somebody’s name in your marketing efforts,” says Anthony Myers, co-founder of BookPrimo.com, which makes booking software for spas and salons. “When somebody hears their name, they pay attention. Although people are becoming conditioned to this, we still see better performance when we personalize emails.”
Step 5: Increase personalization over time
Many ecommerce websites step up personalization on repeated visits after users have opted in. The personalization reflects content categories the users have previously explored.
Amazon, with its finely-tuned customized offers, is widely cited as the company that has been the most effective at following this strategy in the U.S. A strong search experience is of course the first step along this path, but savvy designers provide a customized version of their site a la Amazon every time a user interacts with it.
The bottom line: Industry observers suggest personalization will be a key differentiator for brands in 2016.
A Forrester report from October suggests customers in 2016 “will reward companies that can anticipate their personal needs and wants—and punish those that clumsily have to relearn basic customer details at each encounter.”
The good news is solid personalization actually doesn’t require knowing much at all about your users, and it can be done with the gentlest of hands.