The Next Great App: Personal Web Sites

Imagine that when you buy a big-ticket item like a car or a house, you get a Web site with your name on it as part of the purchase. When you arrive home, you visit the site to find a page that already has some information about you based on the sale made earlier that day.

This scenario could be played out with smaller transactions such as opening a bank account, buying life insurance or even a trip to the local mall or grocery store. Regardless of what you bought, by typing in your personal URL, the manufacturer, retailer, dealer or realtor has begun to develop a one-to-one relationship.

Part of your personal Web site could be a questionnaire to help the merchant understand your lifestyle and communication preferences.

If you were an existing customer, there would be relevant information based on your preferences and previous purchases. On the sides of the screen would be personalized messages. The key to the site is that only information of interest to you would be included.

As the Information Age explodes, people will need to update a wide variety of information in a structured, timely manner. Every day, people use the logic of computers to organize information such as daily agendas, telephone numbers, addresses, documents and presentations.

Consider the astronomical rise in the use of personal digital assistants to replace paper-based diaries and address books. Portals have recognized this and have extended the relationship with their visitors.

These initiatives depend on visitors creating their own pages based on a pre-existing format of general information. With the data lodged in proprietary and open databases that retailers, banks, manufacturers and a host of other business sectors have on their customers and prospects, they can create an intimate space where they develop a one-to-one relationship.

The personal Web site is a win-win way to develop profitable relationships with customers and learn more about them in a permission-based, customer-focused manner. By leveraging the offline and online data about customers and understanding their preferences, the business-to-consumer marketers win because they actively target based on this data.

The variety of incentives offered is tailored to customers' value to the business. Using the personal Web site is a concrete way of asking permission to market to individuals under their terms. The customers also win because they choose how and when to view the information and receive the most current special offers.

For example, they can choose to have alerts or e-mail sent to them at their preferred addresses with information about special promotional events, offers or news. They are in control of how information is organized and how the relationship develops.

Personal URLs or Web sites that use customer names like vanity license plates provide a superb opportunity for value-added service that delivers true customer relationship management.

As an example, let’s say a person went shopping at a major department store and bought in the children’s clothing, gifts and ladies shoes categories. The bottom of the receipt would read: Come visit your site online at Intrigued by the novelty factor of the URL's name, the customer would log on to see what is waiting.

The shopper goes home, logs on and finds a site featuring some relevant streamed content and advertisements.

On the Web site is a brief questionnaire that offers an incentive via e-mail for answering a few pointed questions, such as: “Would you like to be reminded of upcoming anniversaries or birthdays?” or “How often do you shop online?”

These questions further develop the profile that the major department store has in order to personalize the shopper’s interaction.

Suppose the shopper chooses to ignore the questionnaire. In that situation, the shopper would find a Web site with links to affiliate partners, based on not only the purchases made that day but also transactional history from the offline database or, at the least, some market segmentation.

The personal Web site draws on the entire marketing department’s expertise, embracing the best from advertising, direct and promotions.

Taking this example a step further, the questionnaire could link the preferences of the customer to the personal Web site and provide a sophisticated marketer the interactive space to use video, sound, creative and text tailored to an individual’s preferences.

For example, take the major department store that has a business need to liquidate stock. To do this, a quick model is built and run for all customers likely to buy the particular products, then mini-advertisements could be sent directly to those personal Web sites with an incentive to click through. This approach is even cheaper than sending e-mails, and there is a guaranteed audience to receive the message.

All parts of the enterprise benefit from communicating with their customer through the customer’s personal Web site.

If the product was a car, for example, the personal Web site could contain a questionnaire about driving habits. The owners could use their Web sites as spaces to organize all information about the cars in their households, including service notifications, history, payments and insurance details. When it comes time to trade in or sell their cars, the owners have all the relevant information at their fingertips in an easily transferable format.

By touching many parts of the enterprise, the customer relationship is built across the business instead of the single point of entry that is typical with offline communication. In shifting the relationship from product or price to intangible deliverables such as customer service and relevant content, the customers will develop loyalty to one or two key online personal Web sites.

Personal Web sites are that personal. The company is courting the customers and asking for special permission not only to market but also to enter into a two-way, interactive relationship.

Arguably as customer profitability becomes even more important when the price-aggressive Internet channel is part of the marketing mix, the personal Web site will evolve to help customize offers and, potentially, pricing.

This can happen because the enterprise will understand exactly how much each customer is worth to the business. Even though the onus is on the marketer to deliver the URL initially, the customers are fundamentally committing to the relationship by logging on to their URLs and checking them for new information whenever it suits them.

When the customers do not check in regularly, e-mail and direct mail can continue to nurture the relationship.

Other industry sectors can and will tap into this low-cost addition that adds considerable value and increases customer retention. In time, the personal Web site will be the key loyalty driver for encouraging customers to repeat trips either to the offline or online sites. But as with all things in business, those who convert their customers first will reap the largest share of their wallets or, in this instance, loyalty.

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