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Imagine walking into your favorite neighborhood store. The owner greets you by name with a smile. She knows right away what you're looking for and helps you find it. Helpful and knowledgeable, she answers any questions you have. She shows you some delightful new items that you didn't even know you wanted.

At this store, you get just what you want when you want it. You get attentive, personalized service, and you discover and learn new things. In other words, you're a happy and loyal customer who will be back for more.

Now imagine that this entire interaction took place online. Instead of a friendly storeowner, a Web site gives you the relevant information you seek. With ever-evolving Internet technology comes a new era of personalization (or P13N for short).

Useful and sticky Web sites find out what's most important and relevant to their customers—and then customize their experiences in a meaningful way. By giving customers more of what they want, when they want it, Web companies can use the power of personalization to increase customer engagement and retention.

Let's look at some personalization principles that work, and Web companies that are doing a great job of applying them.

1. Keep it simple

Amazon has done a masterful job of keeping personalization simple. Returning customers get recommendations based on previous site purchases and browsing. One-click ordering makes repeat shopping a breeze. Customer reviews and related purchases help customers find more of what they're looking for. Emails give customized alerts and reminders of new products. And an easy-to-use account page lets customers quickly view and change their orders and personal settings.

If you work on an e-commerce site, why reinvent the wheel? Look and learn from Amazon's simple and effective approach for giving customers a personalized shopping experience.

2. Make a great first impression

We all know that first impressions make a big difference when you meet someone. The same holds true for Web sites. Companies making a great first impression have a better chance of holding on to customers for the long term.

Netflix sets a standard, especially for a service quite different from its bricks-and-mortar alternative. First-month-free trial offers lower the risk for new customers. The Web site makes it easy to find specific movies and browse by genre, popularity and actor across a wide selection of DVDs. Members can rate movies already seen, which Netflix then uses to offer customized recommendations. Similar to Amazon, Netflix offers customer and critic movie reviews, and it lists rentals made by others who have rented a given movie. It's easy to update rental queues and save movies not yet released on DVD in a separate queue.

Furthermore, Netflix's 35 shipping centers across the U.S. enable the company to provide one-day service for 90 percent of its customers. All these factors together create a "wow" first impression.

3. Make it relevant

Having a baby certainly qualifies as one of the most meaningful life changes a couple experiences. BabyCenter does a great job of offering personalized information for new and expectant parents. And the company does so by just asking one simple question: "When is your due date or baby's birth date?"

With that one fact, BabyCenter sends free personalized emails informing parents of what's going on, month by month during pregnancy or with their new baby, based on the child's age. The Web site offers answers to the numerous and varied questions that new parents have.

By presenting both expert and parent community opinions, BabyCenter offers a range of credible information for customers to evaluate. BabyCenter's online store offers parents' picks, checklists and buying guides to help customers wade through the large number of baby items available. By offering highly relevant information to customers at a critical life stage, BabyCenter has become a trusted resource for millions of new and expectant parents.

4. Keep it fresh

While the Web offers reams of information at your fingertips, many people feel overwhelmed with information overload. How can they get the information that matters most to them in an efficient way?

My Yahoo has created a free, easy-to-use personalized Web page with over 250,000 information sources. Customers simply choose their areas of interest and My Yahoo sets up their page in seconds. Customers can add specific news, sports, finance and other content they want. Options range from big brands like The New York Times and USA Today to blogs like BoingBoing and Engadget.

Customers can get Yahoo Mail previews, local weather forecasts, TV guide listings and an online calendar. They can customize the look and layout of their page and easily delete, add or edit content. RSS feeds continually update information so customers get the latest and greatest information. Many features change daily such as "word of the day," "recipe of the day" and cartoons.

By consolidating all this content on one easy-to-use page, My Yahoo gives its 25+ million customers the stuff they want all in one place.

5. Make it viral

By wowing customers, personalization can increase positive word of mouth, which can both drive customer acquisition and lower the costs of doing so. One Web company that does a great job of making its personalized product viral is WSJ.com. An online counterpart to the Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com offers a lower cost and a quicker, more personalized read of financial news that doesn't kill trees. Customers can input the stock quotes they're interested in, and get the company, industry and topic news they want. WSJ.com invites viral activity by making it easy to email articles to others, even if they are not paid subscribers.

Not only does this allow customers to pass on well-written, informative articles to friends and colleagues, it helps spread word of mouth about the service. Once an article is emailed, customers see a list of the most emailed articles. This list of popular articles in turn helps promote content on the site by surfacing articles that other readers find most valuable.

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P13N has proven its power not only in helping Web companies acquire, engage and retain customers but also in increasing positive word of mouth. With new Web technologies, more customers will experience the power of personalization, which will cause them to expect even more customized services.

By getting what's most relevant and important to them, customers save time, discover more and want more. The companies described above have done a great job of applying personalization principles that work. One size does not fit all.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suzanne Taylor is a marketing strategy consultant. Contact her via staylor@serrano.com or visit www.suzannetaylor.com