There’s been much talk about the wonders of the web when it comes
to personalised marketing. Your own personal shopper to pick the right
pair of Levi’s or even help to arrange your wedding. But how much can
all that jazzy software really do for a website?
The new technology can be divided into two distinct types - both of
which are major advances. The more basic technology requires specific
user input, in the form of a questionnaire or e-mail.
So when you’ve typed in your vital statistics and any other relevant
information, it’s analysed and cross-matched against information from
other sources or users so that a profile can be established and
responded to in a particular way. This process goes by the elaborate
name of ’collaborative filtering’.
The other, more sophisticated technology, involves ’intelligent agents’
and is based on so-called ’intuitive’ software. These programmes act
invisibly to monitor a user’s website activity without demanding
Unseen by the user, the ’Big Brother’ builds up a profile of them simply
by noting what type of information they choose to access. The
intelligent agent is ’dynamic’; automatically adjusting a user profile
every time they use the site. This means their profile will change in
accordance with their tastes.
Often, these two types of technology are used together to perform
complementary tasks. They can provide the website owner or advertiser
with an unprecedented level of knowledge about customers and potential
The market for such software is still very immature and a number of
companies - mainly in the US and UK - are still jockeying for position
as key suppliers.
But it is, as ever, a US company, Broad-Vision, which has a head start
in terms of brand recognition and ubiquity of usage. Its personalisation
software has been snapped up by a rapidly expanding list of blue-chip
names, including BT, Virgin Net, Thomas Cook, Hewlett-Packard, American
Airlines and Xerox.
One of its more recent clients is a UK-based company with a truly global
customer base, the engineering parts supplier, RS Components. Keen to
establish a fully fledged e-commerce facility, RS Components’ problem
was finding a way to tailor its 114,000-strong product range - that’s
about three times larger than that of Boots - to its 150,000 corporate
customers. BroadVision’s ’One-to-One’ software uses a combination of
collaborative filtering and intelligent agent software to ensure that
customers are taken directly to the products most relevant to them.
BroadVision says its UK arm is currently negotiating similar deals with
major high street names. A scenario illustrating the benefits is as
follows: a retailer providing e-commerce via its website is prepared to
offer free delivery if the goods purchased amount to more than pounds
50. A customer orders pounds 42-worth and clicks the ’pay’ button.
Because BroadVision’s software will already have collected information
on this customer (via questionnaires and/or invisible monitoring) it
will not only be able to advise them that an extra pounds 8 purchase
will trigger the free delivery, but will also be able to suggest an
appropriate purchase for their needs.It’s not hard to see the enormous
potential of such intimate and instant marketing.
Another One-to-One user in the UK is Toyota, which has just relaunched
its website so that it acts as a personal car showroom for every
registered user. Non-car interests, such as golf and mountain biking,
are fed into the collaborative filtering machine with a view to
categorising customers and potential customers.
There are, of course, question-marks over people’s willingness to part
with personal data. But the signs to date look encouraging, with website
visitors happy to reveal all if they think it will be in their interests
to do so. The American Airlines website has received a staggering three
million completed online questionnaires since its decision last year to
employ One-to-One. Companies can always resort to incentives such as a
loyalty points bonus, discount off first purchase or restricting parts
of the website to registered users.
Mark Hughes, a UK-based BroadVision director, sums up the extent of the
internet revolution when he states: ’Information these days is more
valuable than currency. Personalisation is going to turn marketing on
Companies are going to be measured not by market share but by how much
of each customer’s business they have.’
Another US company operating in this area - often partnering BroadVision
- is Andromedia, whose LikeMinds software was recently incorporated into
the Levi’s website (www.levi.com). The jeans giant, struggling to regain
its dominance after falling victim to changing fashions, is hoping to
make its web pages ’sticky’ - internet-speak for keeping visitors on
your site for longer.
Aiming to mimic a personal shopping assistant, the LikeMinds technology
uses direct questions and collaborative filtering to learn as much as
possible about a visitors’ likes. By instantly profiling a customer
against existing and categorised customer information, the virtual shop
assistant will make suggestions from Levi’s 7,000-strong product range,
resulting in less searching for the customer.
’We know that visitors to our website who use the StyleFinder
personalisation application buy more products,’ Jay Thomas, Levi’s
director of digital media, claims. Kent Godfrey, the chief executive of
Andromedia, adds that personalisation ’is all about creating a feeling
that the company wants to treat you as an individual and is keen to
create a customised experience’.
Although mass take-up of such technology is probably two years away,
many big names are clambering on the bandwagon. Andromedia’s 120 clients
include Chrysler, Intuit, Audi and Associated New Media.
From a web advertiser’s perspective, this technology should also create
a quiet revolution, Godfrey says. Instead of relying on a third party
for campaign feedback, web advertisers will be able to track the
behaviour of everyone who clicks on a banner. ’You’ll be able to
determine the life-cycle value of that person from just one ad campaign,
and measure return on investment,’ Godfrey asserts.
Other cutting-edge software companies in this arena include Net
Perceptions, Vignette, Brightware and Autonomy. The latter two
specialise in, respectively, automated e-mail responses and intuitive
suggestions. If you’re on a newspaper site and find a series of similar
subject news stories listed at the end of the one you’ve just read,
chances are there’s a bit of Autonomy’s Agentware operating behind the
Some big internet names are developing their own personalisation
techniques, notably Amazon and Excite. William Reeve, research director
at Fletcher Research, comments: ’Excite UK is among the websites that
recognise the correlation between enabling users to personalise and the
greater willingness of those users to then participate in other
activities such as e-commerce.’