CAMPAIGN REPORT ON NEW MEDIA: Personal services - Websites and advertisers are now using personal profiles to customise their sites to individual visitors, Robert Gray says

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?

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

up-front information.

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

its head.

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 ( 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.’