Personalization is Not About Data—It’s About People

Personalization, for e-commerce websites especially, is easy—at least, it should be. So why are so many sites so creepy in their tactics?

An online store is still a store. Too many business owners forget this.

Think about the way you’d treat a customer who walks into your store. Are you going to follow them and lurk around trying to overhear intimate details of their lives? Are you going to approach them in a loud and disingenuous way with a hard sell, sell, sell?

I hope not.

As a customer, don’t you love going into a store where the salespeople know your name? Where they can help you pick out things you like, with little effort because they’ve gotten to know your tastes and shopping habits so well?

This is the way online shopping should be. The technology is there now. The problem is owners are so focused on getting the right data, they forget there’s a human at the other end and that the goal is to build a relationship of sorts.

Am I simplifying this too much? I don’t think so, and Adobe’s 2012 Digital Marketing Optimization Survey results suggest I’m right. Lets take a look at some of their findings:

Most websites are designed to be relevant for a majority audience, but they are largely irrelevant to the individual visitor. Personalization technology enables marketers to understand the motivations and different interests of their audiences so that they can serve up the most relevant content and offers.

Most brick-and-mortar stores, especially big-box ones, are not relevant to the individual visitor—like websites. But the good ones make themselves relevant. The salespeople get to know the customers and are able to make their shopping experience more efficient and enjoyable so customers want to return.

Websites can do the same thing. Consider this next point from Adobe’s report:

Returning customers convert at higher rates when presented with targeted content that takes into account past purchases or browsing history. However, if the personalization is gimmicky or forced, then it can also disconnect those same consumers from the process.

Uh, duh. In person we’d react this way immediately, but online we somehow forget that we’re still dealing with the same customers—only the location has changed.

A customer walks back into a store after being there a few times, and the salesperson who has been paying attention during these previous visits says, “I have just the things for you. You’re going to love them.” And the salesperson gets the items and the customer likes them and gets out of there quicker. Plus, she refers her friends later.

Bloomingdales, Nordstrom’s, Amazon and Zappos. These are examples of stores that get it right. Emulate them.

Nordstrom Personal Shopper ad

You don’t want to be that cheesy stereotype of a salesperson and push your customer away with insincere sales-y slobber. And that’s often what happens on the web when you rely on data from another source.

Be patient. Gather organic data at your site and get to know your customer. If you’d like to hurry the process a bit, think about offering your customers a “serve you better” survey, in which you ask relevant questions about what types of decisions they make regarding products or services similar to yours. If you frame the survey as for their benefit rather than yours (which it is), more people will be willing to take it. (Just remember…be short and relevant.)

As Adobe says, “You can create the most relevant experience by leveraging expressed and implied information about an individual’s intent and interest that continues to evolve throughout a customer’s journey.”

What were the most important words in that quote?

If you didn’t say “relevant, evolve and journey,” go back and read this blog post again.



  1. Yes Coreen totally with you on this.

    You know, the idea of online chat comes to mind when you describe the online shopping experience. With chat the merchant and shopper can have a dialog with one another.

    Chat is becoming more common on auto dealer sites, with good success so far. Often times the chat is managed (outsourced), which for autos works well.

    This is one reason that the information about those online is important though. Keep in mind that in the physical you have body language and eye contact so you can pick up signals intuitively, but not online. This is where the merchant is disadvantaged.

    As you suggest, personalization is more significant than the big data, but these shopper insights can aide the merchant to better personalize the online experience for each shopper.

    • ctmarcom · October 9, 2012

      Chat is a great example, Ryan–and it’s a valuable way for businesses to get closer to their customers. The data part is necessary, but I think it’s important for all of us to remember, we’re still dealing with people. Keeping in mind how we would act if the interaction was in-person is a good way to keep online dealings with customers on track.

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