Cookies Add Personal Touch to Web Sites

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Everyone likes to hear the sound of his own name. That is one way the old corner grocers kept their customers: "Hello, Mrs. Pierce. How is your daughter doing now that she's home from school?" That is a very powerful sentence. The grocer is aiming to keep Mrs. Pierce coming back for groceries for a lifetime.


How does the grocer know this stuff? Mrs. Pierce has told him, he remembers it and is able to call up this information from memory, and he uses it when she walks into his store.


So how can you keep customers coming back to your Web site for a lifetime? Amazon showed us the way: "Welcome back, Arthur." We have all seen this phrase and recognize it right away. It is as familiar as "You've got mail," which became the title of a Hollywood movie.


But knowing only someone's first name rings a little hollow in today's fast-moving Internet world. You have to know a lot more than that. American Airlines remembers my frequent-flier number and can tell me how many miles I earned, and I don't have to enter my number. Amazon remembers my address and my credit card number. It also is pretty good at remembering the books I ordered and suggesting other titles I might like. I have bought three books from Amazon that it suggested. I am happy with all three.


The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition made a mess of things for a few years. They have a log-in system that is case sensitive. Until recently, it never remembered anything. I kept forgetting my ID and passwords. I found the Journal almost useless to me. Recently, they started remembering who I am when I log on. Now, I don't have to enter anything. I just start reading. How did they do it?


The answer, of course, is cookies. If you click with your mouse on the "start" button on your Windows screen, you will bring up your Windows Explorer. Using it, go to the Windows directory. Inside it, you will see a Cookies directory. There, you will find 20 or more entries from anyuser@aa[1] to anyuser@yahoo[2]. Inside each of these entries, you will find a group of numbers such as wsj.com/03102621696. These numbers have no meaning to you, or to any hacker who might peek into your computer. They are of interest only to the software at the company that put them there, such as The Wall Street Journal or Yahoo.


Every time you log on to a site such as these that uses cookies, its software will immediately hunt for its own cookie in your Windows directory. Armed with this number, the software will go to a lookup table in the memory of its server and discover that the computer it is dealing with belongs to you. All of this is done in a fraction of a second.


Then, if it's clever, it will use this information to recognize you by name. It will use the information you provided in previous visits to give you the service you want: one-click ordering, or your preferred content on its Web page. And if it's good at it, it will bring back the warm reception and recognition you got from the old corner grocer.


Since they are so helpful, everyone is using cookies, right? Wrong. When I lecture at the National Center for Database Marketing or the Direct Marketing to Business conferences, I always ask my audience by a show of hands, "How many are using cookies?" I get two or three hands out of a hundred. Why are they not using cookies? There seem to be several reasons.


o Privacy. The privacy nuts are at it again. "Cookies are an invasion of personal privacy," they maintain. No company wants to do that. But there are simple ways around that. Many Web sites ask, "Do you want us to remember your ID number and password?" When they ask that, they are really getting your permission to use a cookie. Is The Wall Street Journal invading my privacy by letting me come on to its Web site every day to get the news without entering a complicated, case-sensitive ID and password? Of course not.


o Ignorance. Many marketers do not sufficiently understand the technology yet to insist that their programmers use cookie technology to achieve customer recognition and helpfulness. Cookies cost you and the using company absolutely nothing, once a few lines of code are written in the Web site software.


o Jurisdiction. Believe it or not, many Web sites are run by information technology and not by marketing. What a mistake. The Web is the greatest marketing vehicle ever invented. If your marketing staff does not maintain your Web site, fight to get the jurisdiction changed, or you will miss out on the most important channel to your customers in the years to come.


Cookies, however, are only the first step. To use the Web properly for recognition, you need to recognize your best customers with an extranet. The first step is to find out who your "gold" customers are. Many marketers have not yet done this analysis, but it is comparatively simple to do. Once you know who these valuable customers are, give them a personal identification number. Then, when they come on the Web site using that PIN, you can make their whole Web experience with you a very personal one.


Dell has more than 30,000 premier pages for its best customers. In many cases, it has negotiated volume prices for these gold customers. These prices show up when customers use their PIN. Dell also uses the premier pages to send regular reports back to its customers' purchasing offices telling them what their employees have spent on computers. Soon, all business-to-business sites such as Staples and Office Depot will be doing that. And, once the gold customer has used his PIN for the first time, he won't need to use it again. The Web site will use cookies to remember him and his PIN.


Now is the time to get with it and start using cookies to recognize your customers and keep them coming back for a lifetime.
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