Personalization With No Budget, Part 1

Jack Aaronson

Updated · Mar 25, 2002

Personalization has always been associated with two other major things: technology and money. But since it's early in the year, odds are, if your experiences are anything like mine, the following has happened to you:

  1. You submitted a budget last year for personalization, one-to-one marketing, profiling, or however you termed it.
  2. Your boss or CEO made your projects a “priority” and maybe even talked about your ideas to investors or at a company meeting.
  3. You went on Christmas/New Year's break happy and restful because you knew that your projects would be funded.
  4. You arrived at the office last week only to find that all of the “really important” customer-centric ideas that were in your budget were cut in favor of “core business” items that have a return on investment (ROI) your senior management can understand.

Sound familiar? This is the tired story of our life as pushers-of-the-envelope. Which leads us to the Personalization and the City question of the week:

Can personalization exist in a world without money or resources?

In this two-part series, I want to talk about what you can do on little or no money and what you can do to set the stage for the year to come.

Step 1. Realize that personalization (or whatever you call it in your company) is really just a way to incorporate features that make your customers feel like you understand them. That is a universal idea and not tied to any particular project.

Step 2. Figure out which of your budgeted projects (those that weren't part of your personalization projects) can be rethought to include the main ideas in your nonfunded projects.

Step 3. Figure out which budgeted projects controlled by other people you can attach yourself to.

Let's talk in detail about this. Step 1 is simple. If you are doing your job well, you should see that all the personalization projects you wanted to do this year follow the same modus operandi. Your reasons might be different than another company's reasons for wanting personalization, but I'll take a stab in the dark and guess that at some point your boss/CEO used statements like “Our site is impersonal,” “Our customers don't trust us,” “Our customers don't think that we understand them,” “Our site is nonintuitive,” or even “Everyone else is doing it.”

I am sure that the projects you proposed (maybe it was a “my” area on the site or a system to recommend products or services) are great solutions to some of these problems. But if you weren't given the budget to do these great ideas, you need to take another track.

Figure out how you can add these personalization ideals to other projects you are doing. For instance, let's say you are in charge of redesigning a certain set of pages on your site, redoing your interactive voice response (IVR) system, or redoing your printed collateral. Look at each of these projects and see where a personal voice, or where addressing your users in a more personal fashion, could help. Maybe your revised collateral could address specific segments of users, where now you have only one version of your collateral.

Is this personalization or simply segmented direct marketing? Is there really a difference? To me, personalization is anything that makes your conversations with your users more specific. To one extreme, you might know their names and everything about them and can construct a personalized bulletin that is 100 percent just for them. However, maybe the most granular you can get right now is to segment users based on interest groups. In my view, the important difference between personalization and general segmentation is that in personalization you segment people based on their view of the world, not yours.

For instance, a traditional marketer might segment people based on their income to see the difference in response rates. For more personalized targeting, the segmentation wouldn't be based on some random demographic overlay, but rather on some criterion that your customers would find appealing, such as special interests. At barnesandnoble
.com, my team created a “special interests” area with specific “boutique” stores geared toward working moms, pet lovers, jazz aficionados, and so on. They were very successful. We took our sense of who our audience was and created areas for them. Is this what you would have thought of as “personalization”? Maybe not — because the pages weren't different for every user. Instead, we targeted specific groups. To me, that is as much personalization as anything else is: giving users specifically what they want in a way that makes them feel like you understand them.

Maybe you have to redesign part of your site. Look very carefully and think about what simple programming changes can make your site seem more personalized. For example, does your site ask for information, such as a Zip Code (in a store finder, for instance), or do you require someone to log in? If so, do you automatically populate these fields for users if they have been filled in before? This is easy to program. You can store this simple information in cookies. No back-end work is required. No heavy effort by technical people is required. Your scripters can do that.

Today's personalization rule is: Never make your users repeat themselves. If you have a place online where Zip Code, username, and so on are required, you need to save this information so that the user doesn't have to reenter it. As I said, you don't need to save this information in your databases (unless you want to do some analytics around the data), and it is very easy just to store this stuff in cookies. If you have a system that asks a series of yes/no or multiple-choice questions, save these answers (either on your servers or on the user's computer). That way, these answers become the default answers the next time the user enters the site and goes through the same process.

Maybe your system has various “configurators” for different products, but many of the questions are the same in each one. If that is the case, make sure that these previously answered questions have the answers filled in. An example is the process of buying a computer online. Maybe I need to buy a few different computers for my office. If I go through the wizard each time to have it suggest products for me, it should begin to default some of the answers for me because it “knows” my answers. Doing this requires no complicated technology, but it provides a real feeling of personalization in the eyes of the user.

That's all we have space for this week. Next time, we'll discuss how to tweak your projects so that the technology component is less expensive, and we'll talk about the merits of attaching yourself to other people's projects.

Jack is recognized worldwide as
an expert in personalization, one-to-one marketing, multi-channel marketing,
and consumer behavior. He is CEO of Jack Aaronson Consulting, and
lectures around the world, helping companies craft customer-centric
strategies. He has been published in Peppers & Rogers' “One-to-One”
magazine, and “DIRECT” magazine. Jack is writing a book on consumer
behavior and the psychology behind effective multi-channel marketing.
Before starting his own company, Jack was director of personalization at

Reprinted from ClickZ.

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