I Don’t Know You: CRM for the Anonymous Browser

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Jul 10, 2002

Can a Web site be personalized for someone you don’t know anything about?

Companies ask people like me to help them strategize personalization and email initiatives, but very few ask what kind of CRM they can do for the bulk of their online users: the anonymous browsers. Because the number of people browsing your site is much higher than your number of registered users, you have a huge opportunity to provide a rich experience to these users as an enticement for them to register. When I was the director of personalization at Barnes&Noble.com, I spent a lot of my time thinking about this issue and creating projects to account for all different types of users. I’ll use a few of these projects as case studies for this article.

“Anonymous” Does Not Mean “First Time”

I am an anonymous user on most of the Web sites I use. Let me qualify that: I am an anonymous user on most of the Web sites I use regularly. For me, there has to be a really good reason to register with a site. A lot of sites offer personalized experiences for their registered users, but just a standard nonpersonalized experience for unregistered users. Because “anonymous” doesn’t mean the same as “first time,” you should design your personalization projects to account for three different types of users: the first-time user, the anonymous (but regular) user, and the registered user.

When I designed Barnes&Noble.com’s wish list, we accounted for these users in the following ways:

  • A first-time user would be served marketing information (such as on-site advertising) about the functionalities of the wish list and how to access it. She could also start a wish list.
  • The anonymous user could access the wish list from the computer on which it was created and would be shown marketing information about how to access his wish list.
  • A registered user could access the wish list from any computer. Several multichannel campaigns were designed around registered wish list users. The wish list was tied to a user’s cookie when no account information was available. When a user who used this flavor of the wish list eventually registered, her wish list was converted to a registered wish list and could be accessed from any computer the user signed on to.

Though this might seem obvious to some, we had to account for all of the business rules surrounding each of these types of users: how long different types of wish lists persist; what happens when a user puts items in an anonymous wish list, then logs into his account that already has a registered wish list (i.e., how are these products merged?); and what kind of marketing campaigns can be done on the site (for anonymous users) versus via email (for registered users). All these decisions must be made before any coding can begin. All types of users must be accounted for.

Personalization Features As Acquisition Tools

When defining success criteria and reporting needs for the project, we not only looked at how many products were bought from a wish list but also how many anonymous wish lists turned into registered wish lists. That gave us a good idea of how the wish list project worked as an acquisition tool.

If users are anonymous but visit your site often, they obviously find it interesting. It’s OK to offer personalization in small doses. Offer all users, not just registered ones, slight customization or session-based personalization. Then, you can offer to save the personalization. That’s when people register. Give people a reason to register and they will.

Success and reporting metrics for your personalization projects should include acquisition metrics, not just retention and revenue metrics.

Some Personalization Isn’t About Users At All

There are many forms of personalization people like you and I wouldn’t necessarily consider personalization. Sometimes we’re too close to our own world to understand what personalization means to our users. For instance, another feature I was responsible for at Barnes&Noble.com was the “People who bought [this] also bought [that]” list you get when you view a title. Although I wouldn’t think of that as particularly personalized (everyone sees the same list for the same book), users view it as personalization, because it provides a “personcentric” way to navigate products on the site. By improving the accuracy of these links, we were able to dramatically improve cross-sells on the site. In accordance with the “personalization as acquisition tool” section above, one metric we wanted to track was the number of people who follow an “also bought” link, then create new accounts and buy their first books.

Configurators, such as the “build your own computer” feature sites like Dell and Gateway use, are also viewed by users as personalization. No knowledge of the user is required to build these engines. Another great project we built at Barnes&Noble.com was a “Gift Advisor.” This was essentially a configurator that recommended the perfect products to buy for someone. On the left-hand side of the configurator was a list of questions, such as:

  • Who are you buying a gift for?
  • What is the recipient interested in?
  • What is your price range?

There were a few other questions as well, but you get the point. Next to each question was a drop-down box of answers. Every time the user selected an option, the right-hand side of the configurator updated the most appropriate selection of products. Everything happened dynamically, and each click led to a regeneration of product listings. Users were never allowed to select a combination that would result in a listing of “no products match your selections,” because the engine we used was very smart and wouldn’t let that happen. It dynamically added or removed options that were no longer applicable based on answers already given.

You want to enter into a dialogue with all your customers. If you provide a way for users to interact with you, even while they are anonymous, you achieve this goal. Once interaction has started, your users will begin to feel “invested” in your site, especially if you don’t ask too much of them up front.

These projects engage users in an interaction with your company. They encourage your users to register, because in their eyes, they already have a relationship with you: They know who you are. They are interacting with you. You’re the only one who views them as anonymous.

Until next time…


Thanks to all of you who wrote in about my last article. I put a video clip on my Web site, so those who are interested can see how I present this example in my multichannel marketing seminar.

Reprinted from ClickZ.

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