Are Print Catalogs Smarter than Your Website?


Excuse time is over. Discover the approaches that make dynamic content targeting on the web too easy and effective to ignore.

Not long ago I discovered a secret from a friend of mine who leads marketing for a large and well-known online retailer. I won’t name names, but it’s a big organization with the kinds of budgets and brainpower that should place it firmly in the vanguard of online marketing best practices.

Yet, despite all of his company’s marketing and technical firepower, my friend confessed to me that his company was doing a better job of delivering targeted, personalized content through humble print catalogs than it was through the web.

This probably says more about the quality of my friend’s offline marketing than it does about that lack of sophistication behind his website. However, the idea that any major online marketer today would settle for a one-size-fits-all website left me speechless. Particularly when so many tools now exist to make content targeting both affordable and easy to implement.

Website personalization, or on-site behavioral targeting, involves dynamically modifying the content on your website to match the needs and interests of individual visitors. Why bother?

You’ll sell more. Despite years of advances in online merchandizing, navigation and usability, the online shopping experience is still often a bewildering and frustrating experience. Those sites that manage to improve content relevance for their visitors are rewarded by improved conversion rates, higher average order value and enhanced customer retention. In our experience, the lift in conversion rates from even the most basic content targeting approaches averages between 10 percent to 50 percent — and is often much higher in previously “neglected” segments.

Your customers want it. Demanding online shoppers have little patience for irrelevant content. And consumers are asking for targeted information. A 2006 eMarketer study found that 57 percent of consumers would trade demographic information for personalized content. According to Forrester, 77 percent of customers say they find product recommendations somewhat to extremely useful. And a recent DoubleClick Performics survey found that 59 percent of online shoppers would return to buy again if presented with special offers based on previous purchases.

Your competitors are doing it. Let’s face it, things are tough out there. Jupiter predicts that U.S. online retail sales will plateau at just 10-15 percent of total U.S. retail sales. The e-tailing group’s Annual Merchant Survey reports that online conversion rates are barely moving. According to Forrester, only 30 percent of online retailers consider their current up-selling and cross-selling initiatives to be effective.

Online businesses are recognizing that more sophisticated tactics are in order. Perhaps that’s why 75 percent of e-business executives told Forrester they would begin the process of accelerating content targeting this year. At the same time, costs for such tools have come down and hosted solutions make implementation easy — removing some of the main barriers to entry for online businesses.

So, you’re convinced that website targeting is the right thing to do, but don’t know where to start? Taking a crawl-walk-run approach often makes the most sense, particularly when there are so many quick wins that can produce immediate results.

Start by improving the performance of your acquisition campaigns by addressing the needs of anonymous visitors to your website. You probably know much more about them than you realize! Next, start reducing abandonment rates and increasing sales by targeting your visitors’ on-site behavior. Finally, bring out the big guns to improve lifetime value by drawing in data across all of your brand’s touch points. Sound tough? Let’s take it step by step.

First impressions
One of the beauties of the web is that so much useful information is available to us about seemingly “anonymous” visitors from the very first click. Become a more perceptive online marketer by leveraging these simple but powerful data points in your content targeting:

Inbound search terms. Even sites that are well-optimized for search often have difficulty presenting content that accurately reflects inbound searches — especially when a significant portion of search traffic is reaching the home page. Dynamically modifying site content to match inbound search terms is a simple and proven way to improve relevance for visitors first reaching your site. For instance, if the word “sweater” appeared in the inbound search term, trigger a sweater SKU on the landing page.

Geo-location. If you have products, services or special offers that are limited to certain geographic regions, then be sure to target them to visitors who live in the right places through IP-based or input-based geo-location. Brick-and-mortar businesses also will find this beneficial for driving visitors toward in-store sales and events. Have excess inventory at the northeast regional warehouse? You know what to do!

Acquisition campaign. Your banner, email and paid search campaigns may be utilizing scores or even hundreds of different headlines and offers. Rather than building different landing pages for each campaign variant, or sending them all to the same page (gasp!), modify your landing page content dynamically to match the exact headline, offer and other creative elements the visitor responded to. You’ll see bounce rates drop and conversions improve accordingly.

Technical bits. Depending on your business, certain technical attributes of your visitors — like connection speed, ISP and operating system — can be pure gold. Sell software? Then be sure to present compatible products to users on each OS version. Sell telecom? Knowing which visitors are on competing ISPs can give you a head-start on presenting your competitive advantages. Or sniff out a visitor’s current connection speed to up-sell him to a faster service.

Getting behavioral
If your visitors’ boring technical attributes are not enough to satisfy you, then sink your teeth into on-site behavioral targeting. Recommendation engines are frequently employed here to increase average order value and revenue by presenting cross-sells and up-sells based on individual or aggregate click and purchase behavior. But there’s more to the story.

What about all those visitors who start the checkout process but then abandon? Reengage them before they leave with a last-minute offer or a simple reminder about their unfinished order. Incentives aren’t always necessary here. Some of the best reengagement messages acknowledge and assist users in the comparison shopping process by allowing them to leave product and pricing information on hand in an open window while shopping elsewhere.

Better yet, learn to recognize the signs of an imminent exit (such as a period of inactivity during the checkout process) and preemptively strike with a well-timed and well-placed message designed to overcome potential objections — before your visitor even thinks of clicking back to Perez Hilton.

Finally, don’t forget to close the loop with email and banner retargeting campaigns that deliver strong offers on the products your visitors browsed or placed in their carts, but ultimately left behind.

Advanced placement
If you’ve covered all the basics, and targeting on-site behavior seems blasĂ©, then it’s time to pull out the big guns. Put your multi-channel data to work by delivering offers that reflect the “whole customer”: offline and online purchase history, browsing behavior, email campaign response, brand affinity, product ownership — any and all data you have available. Draw in demographic, behavioral and life-stage data enhancements to round-out profiles. Segment ways that will help visitors progress to more advanced and profitable stages of the customer lifecycle. Utilize predictive modeling and other analytic techniques to anticipate and present more compelling offers.

As I’ve written in this column before, the particular challenge for online marketers here — as in just about every interactive medium — is the ability to recognize customers at the point of interaction and to consolidate often disparate sources of data. And it’s why my friend’s company has found it easier to deliver targeted offers through print catalogs than through the web.

But website personalization doesn’t necessarily have to be a complex or expensive proposition, and strong results are often within easy reach. Most of the tactics I’ve described here are simple steps that most online marketers can and should take to make the web channel more intelligent and profitable.

Your customers want it. Competition demands it. Excuse time is over.

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