Balance personalisation, privacy on Web sites

Speakers today at the Komm conference, held at the Internet Commerce Expo (ICE) in Germany, offered tips on how businesses can better tailor Web content to individual users' needs.

"Personalisation has something to do with marketing, of course," said Rainer Zahner, manager of Internet consulting firm Eskatoo, "but of course it has a lot to do with the user as well." Visitors to e-commerce sites are just as pleased to have their individual needs anticipated, he said, as a shopper at a department store would like to be personally greeted by a salesperson who already knows the shopper's size and what color shirt or tie he would be likely to buy.

Advantages of personalisation are that the customer feels understood, information is delivered on an individual basis, and users are offered a quicker path to relevant data, he said.

But Thomas Gessner, managing director of the German subsidiary of Broadvision, warned that data collection in e-commerce is a two-way street.

"Remember, there's a relationship between what I want to know and what I give [the user]," he said. "If I don't offer sports news, I shouldn't ask him if he's interested in sports."

He mentioned an on-line questionnaire posed by a German wine dealer. After inquiring about the user's tastes and preferences in wine -- reasonable questions, Gessner said -- it asked for the user's annual income. Irrelevant questions are off-putting, he said, and likely to contribute to users' impressions that companies are collecting sensitive personal data about them.

Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, offered another hypothetical: Say an online bookseller tracks what books users place in their "shopping cart" but then remove without purchasing them and then offers the same titles at a discount on the user's next visit. A good marketing tactic? No, he said. "It spooks the customer ... to have it rubbed in their nose that you're tracking their every move."

Other "idiot marketers" have dreamed up the idea, he continued, of tracking what shop windows customers are looking at, then sending tailored discount offers to their mobile phones. "Don't stalk the consumer," he warned.

Collection of personal data, Catlett said, should be relevant to the service provided, and anticipated by the user. Otherwise it's likely to scare off repeat customers, lead to damaging media criticism, and the risk of legal headaches.

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