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Social networks may seem the ultimate way to humanize the Web. After all, they connect people across time, distance, and interests. But despite Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and all the rest, the Web is becoming more dehumanized than ever.

Perception and Expectations

Perhaps the Web, per se, isn't the issue. Maybe it's a matter of perception and expectations. Remember a decade ago, before YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, when everyone was still excited about websites? Delivering a great user experience wasn't much harder than avoiding broken links and 404 errors, and presenting options clearly on the navigation bar.

But users expect more now. They want to connect to whatever they want from wherever they want whenever they want, from any device running on whatever platform.

And it's not just the mobility of the experience that has changed. Not long ago we had only three real choices for TV. Now you can watch an almost limitless array of video programming on a wide variety of channels from multiple media outlets. And simply because you choose to watch last night's episode of The Daily Show on Hulu doesn't mean that you aren't simultaneously shopping on your tablet and texting your friends.

We have quickly evolved from multi-channel to omni-channel. And the expectation is that brands will be able to keep up with us as we leap from channel to channel, device to device.

Such an explosion of channels and experiences may sound at first like a good thing both for consumers and for brands. Consumers get to choose what to consume and where, when, and how to consume it. Brands have the opportunity to reach consumers 24/7, 365 days a year, across multiple channels.

But there is a downside. For consumers, it's the tyranny of choice. When we're confronted with too many choices, studies have repeatedly shown, we get overwhelmed and our ability to make rational choices declines. For brands, it's an almost impenetrable wall of noise that has to be broken through to get the message across.

More Personalization, Greater Relevancy

The only factor that mitigates this mass-market attention deficient is relevancy. Simply stated, relevancy is the intersection of what brands want to communicate and what people are interested in—at that moment. And personalization is how you get there.

In a humanized Web, the interaction between user and content is relevant and engaging. To be relevant, the content has to be personalized to meet the consumer's needs, desires, and expectations.

Of course, we're not talking "Welcome back John" and certainly not "Dear Valued Customer." Real personalization goes much deeper than that today. Call it Personalization 2.0: It means the delivering the right content to the right person at the right time on the right device, using the right channel, published on the right platform.

Achieving such personalization requires knowing deep context: not just a customer's demographic data but also the time and location she accessed content, the search terms she used to find it, the referring site that directed her toward it, and—most important—her behavior before, during, and after consuming it, all of which can be derived from real-time analytics.

It's a complex task that requires a lot of effort, especially on the part of commercial brands that use the Web to deliver their messages. But the payoff is rich. Companies that excel at delivering rich, personalized online experiences not only produce more loyal customers but also outperform their competition on the stock market, according to a recent five-year study conducted by Forrester Research.

Three Steps to Greater Personalization

For companies and marketers interested in making Web experiences more human, here are three quick tips for getting started.

1. Focus on what is important to your customers

Every time customers visit your website or otherwise interact with your company or brand, they leave with a valuable impression. Customer experience management (CXM) is the key to getting inside your customers' brains, learning something from every interaction they have with your brand, and managing those interactions so as to promote customer loyalty, brand equity, and profitability. And when customer loyalty goes deep, it turns to brand advocacy.

2. Create content that lends itself to personalization—by region, language, audience, media...

Human nature dictates that people will pay attention to that with which they find a connection. To be effective, your messaging must speak to the needs, desires, and the social and cultural norms of your intended audience.

Consider the example of a major global airline that wanted to impress its business class customers with the quality of its onboard service. It produced a rich Web experience using video overlain with a dynamic application layer allowing for significant personalization.

If a customer from Germany comes to the site, the application knows the geolocation and infers the language. When the visitor clicks on the video content, he is presented with not only information relevant to airline passengers originating in Germany but also a video dubbed in German. When another customer comes to the same site, but this time from Spain, she is shown a different video, but with the original English audio track and Spanish subtitles. Why the difference?

It has to do with the cultural norms that carry over from how foreign films are typically viewed in each country. In Spain, most people are accustomed to watching movies in the original language, with subtitles. But, in Germany, most people prefer dubbed versions. Here the marketer combines technology with geography and cultural sensitivity. The result is a personalized and thus more relevant and memorable Web experience.

3. Evaluate your company's maturity

Conduct an evaluation of your company. How ready is it to embrace customer experience management? Only once it is will you be ready to successfully use personalization to create relevant experiences that are rewarded by customers with their spend, their loyalty, and their affinity.

Evolving a company's culture and organizational structure is not an easy task. It requires a comprehensive change management approach that can both foresee and prevent problems from occurring.

Most important is defining employees' roles within the organization. Through such division of responsibilities, authors, editors, branding/user experience experts, product owners, and marketers all contribute to CXM.

* * *

Part of the reason that the Web has become more dehumanized is its immensity and ubiquity. The Internet has long since surpassed a scale that can be easily understood at a human level. More ideas are circulated in an instant than any person can process in a lifetime. More actions are taken in a nanosecond online than we will ever be able to contemplate.

However, that very technology can be harnessed to make Web experiences more personal, and as a result more human, via a commitment to customer experience.

Personalizing interactions with customers gives your company a competitive advantage. Meeting customers' expectations is not enough; you need to exceed them. Otherwise, you risk being dismissed as an irrelevant player in your industry.

By providing customers with relevant content that is fully integrated across all platforms, you can create an experience that will promote brand loyalty and ultimately brand advocacy.

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image of John Kottcamp
John Kottcamp is chief strategy and marketing officer of Tahzoo, a customer experience marketing firm.

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