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Even with the plethora of data available about website visitors today, when a potential customer arrives on a website for the first time the organisation has no idea who that customer is, or what their preferences are - but that doesn't mean you can't provide a personal experience, according to Katharine Hulls, vice president of marketing for Celebrus Technologies, who over the next few weeks will be examining the key steps needed to improve both customer engagement and the overall customer experience using one-to-one, real-time personalisation. This article is copyright 2013 The Best Customer Guide.

By employing real-time personalisation techniques, marketers can provide web visitors with a positive online experience as soon as they arrive on the website, making them feel at ease and engaged. The process of encouraging website visitors to share personal information can be broken down into three steps, each as equally important as the other and if not executed carefully and with sensitivity, could result in that visitor being lost as a potential customer for good.

In this series of articles Hulls examines each step toward changing an unknown first-time web visitor into a brand advocate or 'fan', using customer analytics and data-driven marketing. By the end of this journey, you will have a clear understanding of the whole process which can be applied to your own strategy. The three steps are:

  1. Turning a browser into a purchaser;
  2. Turning a purchaser into a returning customer;
  3. Turning a returning customer into a fan.

Start at the beginning
The key to this process is to create the immediate online experience that encourages the customer come to you for more. When a new visitor lands on a website the organisation has no idea who the visitor is, just that a potential customer is on their website. However, even without gathering any further information at this point, there are opportunities to create an experience that will bring that individual back for more.

Firstly, most browsers arrive on a website for the first time through typing a search term into a search engine, thereby indicating their area of interest and potentially their price sensitivity - for example "heap Brighton hotel" or "designer red handbag". Whilst approximately 40% of referring search terms are masked, 60% are not which means this data is very valuable.

Assuming the site has some relevance to the term they searched for, it's likely that the visitor will also use the on-site search facility, again giving clear indications of their areas of interest. Then, as the individual moves around the website and starts to look at products and services, organisations can immediately begin to build a picture of their interests and preferences by understanding which products they are browsing and whether they delve into prices, offers and the online purchasing process. In addition to this highly valuable behavioural data, "technical" details such as browser language, device type and browser type enable the organisation to not only ensure that the correct website rendering is displayed, but gives an insight into that individual's "online personality", such as whether they are using the latest smartphone or an old desktop.

Bringing together this data to understand more about an unknown individual, combined with the use of real-time website personalisation, enables organisations to present relevant content based on that individual's behaviours, even though they have no idea who they are.

For example, if a visitor on a retail website arrived via searching for "summer dresses sale" and started to explore the site viewing summer clothing, then relevant content can be displayed to show the latest special offers on remaining items in a summer sale. If they search on-site for a certain size or colour, it's even more experience-enhancing and engaging to display products they might like that would actually fit them. This process enables the digital marketer to make the online shopping experience an enjoyable one, which is more likely to result in a purchase.

Imagine the alternative: a potential customer arrives on a website looking for summer clothing. He moves around the website selecting a few related items but also has content displayed that includes the latest deal on lawnmowers or three-piece suits. Very soon this individual will lose interest and leave the website for a competitor.

This is just one simple method and example. Digital marketers can also be very creative with video and use it to monitor how long visitors watch product or promotional videos before moving away.

By creating a positive first experience through being relevant and engaging, companies are well placed to encourage individuals to start sharing some of their personal details - such as registering for an email newsletter programme to receive the latest deals - so they can build a longer-term relationship with that customer in order to turn a one-off purchaser into a repeat customer. But that's the subject of our second article in this series - same time, same place, next week.