April 5, 2011, 10:54 AM

Sponsored Supplement April 2011 Getting personal

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Applying rules for when to show product recommendations is another way to prevent consumers from becoming distracted by recommendations. "Cross-sell opportunities should be initiated once the consumer has placed the item in their shopping cart, because it does not interfere with the immediate goals of the consumer, which initially may be product research or learning more about product details," says Certona's Sheik. "Making a product recommendation too soon can be an unwelcome distraction."

Certona's Resonance Personalization Platform is a software-as-a-service solution capable of profiling consumer preferences after three to four clicks. Retailers can incorporate specific merchandising and business rules to coordinate personalization with their promotional and sales strategies. "Any personalization engine must be flexible when it comes to setting the business rules around the retailer's objectives," adds Sheik.

Fast performance

One rule retailers cannot afford to overlook is that product recommendations cannot slow page downloads. If a retailer's web site slows for any reason, customers are more likely to abandon the site and take their business elsewhere.

"Fast page downloads are critical in e-commerce and personalized recommendations should never slow the speed of the page download to the point the consumer becomes frustrated and leaves the site," says PredictiveIntent's Hamilton. "Consumers tend to find slow page downloads extremely annoying."

Page load speed is a critical factor for retailers. To speed page downloads and improve the overall visitor experience, many retailers use a technique called page caching. One potential downside to page caching product recommendations is that the recommendations will be the same for everyone. To get around this issue, many personalization engines employ JavaScript solutions to ensure that areas of the page remain dynamic and can show personalized content and products.

The personalization engine holds copies of product images and product meta-data which enable the personalization engines to synchronize product inventory on a periodic basis. Periodic synchronization means that retailers with high inventory turnover are at risk of making product recommendations that are not reflective of actual stock availability.

To ensure only in-stock products are recommended, PredictiveIntent implements real-time stock synchronization. PredictiveIntent uses a smart pseudo-JavaScript solution that is capable of staying in real-time sync with the e-commerce platform while still ensuring personalized pages are created using the fast JavaScript method if needed. "Personalized page downloads have to be fast or the personalization strategy is destined for failure," says Hamilton. "It's important to have a personalization partner that has the technology to address that issue."

Slow page downloads are just one hindrance to successful personalization strategies. Consumers that frequently reorder the same products, such as office supplies, typically have to look up each item individually when reordering.

A retailer can make that returning shopper's trip faster and easier by tracking the items he's bought before on a single page that the customer can call up, enter the quantity needed and go straight to checkout. That convenience attracts repeat business. IGoDigital built such a feature for office supplies retailer Staples.

"There are many levels of personalization and it is all based on the needs and wants of the customer base," says iGoDigital's Tobias. "Consumers tend to gravitate to retailers that speak to their needs. Wal-Mart and Best Buy both sell televisions, but they attract different customers with different shopping preferences."

As retailers strive to create the one-to-one sales experience that speaks to a consumer's needs, one tool they can leverage is guided selling.

Asking a consumer questions at the outset of her shopping journey can provide specific attributes of the product she is seeking so that the retailer can suggest a narrow band of relevant products. "Guided selling is an effective tool for learning about consumer product and lifestyle preferences," says Tobias. "Retailers can use that information to make better product recommendations during a guided selling session and incorporate it into a consumer's personal profile for future use."

Beyond the site

For all the information retailers are gathering about consumer preferences, most are only using it in a siloed selling channel, not across all channels. Companies like MyBuys now enable consumer preferences to be leveraged across all channels. This preference data has a broad variety of uses from delivering customized offers via e-mail or SMS text message, to targeting consumers with personalized banner ads. Each channel of communication can benefit from a greater understanding of how consumers interact across all of the channels.

Personalized display advertising is a huge opportunity for retailers to reach consumers with compelling offers. "Retailers are constantly looking for ways to make their ads more effective," says MyBuys' Cell. "Using personalized content in display ads can change the game by showing consumers items that are most likely to appeal to that consumer and thus generate a conversion."

MyBuys' ad network identifies consumers that visited a retailer's site, and serves up ads featuring products specifically for them as they visit other web sites. MyBuys, which works with several different ad networks, is able to engage consumers with 98% reach across the web. As a consumer visits other sites within the ad network, MyBuys can then serve up ads featuring products that are specifically aimed at him. A shopper who visits a home improvement site and browses lawn and garden equipment might see an ad with a headline that says "Spring is here and we have new gardening tools perfect for you." MyBuys dynamically assembles the ad using parameters from the consumer's profile, such as their brand, product or price preferences, and a retailer's brand assets.

"Cross-channel personalization is a great way for retailers to convert consumers into customers and customers into repeat buyers. Engaging consumers with timely and relevant messages leads to increased interactions and deepened customer relationships," says Cell.

Contact center opportunities

Just as retailers can make personalized offers to a shopper as she moves around the web, merchants should also recognize that consumer when she shows up in a bricks-and-mortar store or calls customer service.

A consumer that bought an item requiring assembly, such as a bicycle, is likely to contact the call center if she runs into set-up problems. Connecting a service agent's workstation to the personalization engine so that the agent can access the customer's profile and purchase history puts the agent in position to offer products the shopper might want, such as bicycle tools.

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