Personalised Web sites are next

We have seen case studies about how numerous companies are leveraging the Web. But in past weeks, the building blocks of Web site personalisation began appearing. Once these blocks fall into place, Web sales and marketing can move to the next level. Now is your chance to get an early jump onto this very powerful wave.

Web site personalisation isn't new. Companies such as Net Perceptions (http://www.netperceptions.com) and BroadVision (http://www.broadvision.com) have been providing tools for a few years. But in the past two weeks, Microsoft and Netscape have begun to embrace similar approaches. Microsoft's move was to buy Firefly, an early leader in this category. Netscape added a personalisation option to its PublishingXpert 2.2 tool and promised to bring these concepts across the company's entire tool line.

This kind of general support for personalisation tools will bring the concept into the mainstream. For many of us, personalised service is second nature in our everyday life, and it should become second nature in our Web lives. However, personalised service works only when the provider has an understanding of a subject area -- deep enough to make general recommendations, key awareness of your personal interests, and your trust in the resulting recommendation.

For example, I often go to the same places for my dry cleaning, haircuts and special dinners. I have been going to the same places for more than four years now, and at each business, a key employee now knows me. They know my personal desires, whether it is light starch on hangers or mild foods. In addition to making me feel welcome, this information gives businesses an opportunity to increase sales. They know me, and if they think I would enjoy their special soup, I'll try it. That safe exploration is the payback for years of our relationship.

This sort of personalised service is already happening on Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com). I've bought books there for years, and now the site's recommendation engine (which is powered by Net Perceptions) will make well-considered recommendations of books.

Being a literary dolt, I often haven't heard of the author or title being suggested, and because I didn't think this cyber business could "know me", I often just passed. However, this winter I was on a buying spree and decided to buy one of the recommended books. And I liked it. So I tried another one from a different angle. I liked it too.

Now the interesting thing is that this couldn't have happened in real life. If I went to my local Barnes and Noble bookstore, I would be lucky if the clerks there remembered anything about me. All too often, they think my name is "Next". And if I went to a small local bookstore, I might get personalised service and title recommendations. It might not have enough traffic in the areas that interest me to justify keeping those titles in stock. Needless to say, I now consider the Amazon recommendation quite seriously. I have even found myself going there with no idea of a book and seeing what the site can find for me.

It is this type of customer relationship that personalisation can create. You need to consider how your organisation can begin to expand its customer relationships. What information should you collect? How do you collect it? What type of recommendations can you make? How can you tailor your site to your repeat customers?

You don't need the answers tomorrow, but you will need them soon. You may want to read up in this burgeoning area. I often recommend that customers read one of the books on one-to-one marketing by Don Pepper and Martha Rogers (http://www.1to1.com). Of course, you can also order a book from Amazon. And if you go there enough, you too can benefit from Amazon's personalisation facility. For the non-personal Web, this is a big wave that's coming.

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