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A Concept For Better Targeted Online Marketing

Imagine if every website you visited knew about your preferences, tastes, likes, dislikes, habits, and even what you were trying to achieve right now!

The movie "Limiteless" features a fictional drug that makes available all the information your brain has ever taken in... What if websites took NZT?

The movie “Limiteless” features a fictional drug that makes available all the information your brain has ever taken in… What if websites took NZT?

The future of conversion optimisation, at least over the next few years, is going to be in the area of segmenting and smart content customisation.

Segmenting simply means, “What do we think we know about this visitor, based on the clues we’re given?”

Content customisation is the next, vital step. Based on what we think we know about you, we’re going to show you what we think you’ll be most interested in (and not bother showing you stuff you’re unlikely to want to see).

Some e-commerce sites do a good job of this. Take, for example, Orbitz.com, which I’ve been informed will show you by default more expensive holidays if you access the site on an Apple Mac. Makes sense, as Macs are bloody expensive, and anyone who can afford a Mac is likely to be in the market. That benefits you, the consumer, as you’re getting more relevant content first. And it benefits the retailer, as you’re more likely to buy there. So everyone should be happy.

There’s nothing new going on here. Sellers have always made assumptions about the prospect who walks into their shop, or phones with a particular request. We’re tuned to do it, in face to face situations, and we’re actually quite good at it. We all judge people by their age, gender, voice, clothes, body language, ethnicity.

These judgements are not perfect, by any measure, but the fact is, making assumptions about people tends to be more often helpful than misleading.

But we’re pretty bad at doing it online! That’s the problem I’m trying to solve.

The fundamental problem, of course, is it’s a remote situation. We can’t see the other person, so we know little about their age, gender and ethnicity; and nothing about their voice, clothes, or body language. (Yes, you do.)

Having said that, there is a LOT of information flying around – more than ever. So what could we use to make websites work better?

Of course, individual websites could do a lot more to customise the experiences they show, based on what they know about their visitors. You might be surprised how many e-commerce sites show ALL visitors the exact same pages, whether they’re first-time browsers or they’ve bought multiple times per month for years!

Here’s my concept for a slightly smarter web

The starting point is to record as much as we can about people’s demographic data and behaviour:

Simple Demographic Clues

  • Where are they from?
  • Are they using desktop or mobile? PC or Mac? What browser?
  • What language is their browser set to?

Simple Behavioural Clues

  • First-time or return visitor?
  • How many times have they visited the site?
  • Have they bought? How long ago, how frequently, and how much did they spend?
  • What content do they spend time looking at?
  • Do they browse using regular navigation, or use the search feature?
  • What days of the week or times of day are they online?
  • Do they read emails (from you)? How many do they open?

Just imagine, even with these basic data, if someone comes to your site, and you immediately know all this, what you might do differently.

Let’s take it a step further…

The fundamental principle of my idea is to create a centralised database that records the behaviour of web users – as they travel around the web.

All member sites would both pass demographic and behavioural data to the central database, and also get instant profile “pictures” about any known visitors when they land on their sites. So the system gets smarter and more useful by aggregating data over time.

I would imagine sending data using a tag system, with its own taxonomy, e.g.

  • Searched for “Best digital camera for 50 year old” (IE10, Win7, from IP address xxx.xxx.xxx)
  • Browsed page about “best digital camera for Christmas”, 5m 32s, clicked back.
  • Clicked on an image featuring flight…
  • etc., etc.,
    • etc., etc.,
      • etc., etc.,
        • etc… You get the idea.

The Technical Challenge

It’s straightforward to use a cookie that’s accessible across multiple sites, i.e. a web bug. There’s no challenge there. That’s how ad platforms track which websites you’ve visited so they can “remarker” to you with ads you’re most likely to respond to. But remarketing is actually very crude, compared to what’s possible.

But a cookie will only identify one logged-in user on one device. That’s OK, but ideally we want to track individuals across multiple devices.. These days, a lot of us do research on a phone or tablet, then finally make a booking or buying decision when we’re back on our desktop or laptop.

Tracking The Individual

The system needs to be able to identify the same person, if possible, not just the same computer being used. Where more than one person uses the same login, what can we use?

Clearly, there would be a cascade of knowledge. We may know the individual, possibly even across devices (using a smart tracker); we may know the computer-account (using a cookie, for example); or we may only know the device (using IP address), in which case the knowledge would be woollier still. But any insight is better than none.

There also needs to be a central identifier (ID), which then needs to be tied to as many cross-site visits as possible.

My preference would be a solution that can track people across devices and media: including web browsers, email, and mobile.

  • A tracking pixel or iframe (web bug) can tie together identified (e.g. logged-in) web users and email addresses (if HTML email is used).
  • Email addresses might be one handy mechanism. On sites where visitors may eventually log in, the site could send somewhat anonymous data, using their own site-specific ID, and then later, after the user has identified himself with an email address, send the (hashed) email address to the central database, where account portions can then be recombined using multiple email-hash identifiers.
  • Information from emails is easier. Whenever HTML emails are opened, or links clicked on, the web bug can notify the central server, using either the central unique ID or the email-hash.
  • (I’m playing with another few hacks, which might provide useful more global IDs that could be used to track visitors across multiple sites AND devices without requiring login, but can’t say any more than that now.)

The end result will be that member sites will quickly be able to identify probably the individual, or the computer, and possibly across devices (but not always).

The degree to which we can track the same individual universally will depend on a variety of technical hacks – probably a fuzzy cascading method trying a variety of approaches.

Getting Smarter With The Data – A More Connected Marketing Experience

Just imagine how a more connected behavioural tracking system might be able to provide better experiences for all web users, by intelligently spotting usage patterns, and filtering or modifying content and functionality accordingly.

Here are just a few examples of how this system could be advantageous for web users and website owners.

  • Say I’m looking for the cheapest possible last-minute flight to Stockholm right now, why wouldn’t it be a good idea for the travel site I land on immediately to show me its best price for that destination, instead of tickets to Chicago?
  • If I only like to use e-commerce sites using guest accounts, and hate having to register, why not show me that option first?
  • Maybe I use my tablet computer to research stuff, but never buy with it. Member sites could show me more product information and demote purchase options.
  • If I prefer to buy with PayPal (or a Mastercard, or any other option), that could be the default option on new sites – even ones I haven’t visited before.
  • What if I tend to respond more positively to images of the great outdoors, or cats, or babies? The system could get a flavour of my preferences, which could then inform future marketing messages?
  • If I respond well to funny copy, or profanity (or vice versa), websites I visit in the future could be prepared to respond appropriately?

These are just a handful of the infinite customisations websites might soon be able to offer. The sky is the limit.

But Is It Ethical?

I believe, if this is managed correctly, with a code of conduct to which all member sites must subscribe, my combined system would be a force for good, because it would help websites respond positively to their visitors’ tastes, preferences, and immediate concerns.

Here are a few first thoughts on code of conduct

  • The system doesn’t need to store any personally-identifiable information (names, addresses, email addresses, etc.) This is not a direct marketing platform, and there is no need to be able to retrieve information that might help any marketer to contact any tracked user.
  • All member sites must declare in their terms and conditions that it uses the system, and provide an explicit opt-out.
  • It might be helpful to provide a public interface, where individuals can get a report on what the system knows about them (by entering email addresses).

What Do You Think?

I’d love to get your thoughts on this concept.

Would you use it? Would you be happy for it to start collecting information on your behaviour and preferences?

Please comment below…

About the author

Ben Hunt

Ben is the creator of Web Design From Scratch. He started writing articles about web design to kill time on a long train commute, and is now one of the most influential figures on the subject of effective web design. He has written three books and spoken at multiple conferences internationally.

Dennis van der Heijden - last year

Hi Ben,

There is no real technical challenge here, but you will need to do server side personalization. Doing it client site makes this general database open to queries and data-miners.

So I wonder… is this not BlueKai?

Dennis

    Ben Hunt - last year

    Hi Dennis. I’ve checked out Bluekai, and it seems like what I’m visualising.. However it’s a commercial platform.

    I wonder if there’s room in the marketplace for a non-paid option, where publishers are able to access aggregated visitor data in proportion to the visitor data they submit.

    This might be a platform for the majority of smaller publishers out there. Perhaps it could use a WordPress plug-in to send data and also to support conditional content switching?

    The platform would be funded by any publishers who wanted to use data without the quid-pro-quo deal.

joe - last year

Brilliant mate!… great idea to tailor the visitors experience – i m sure the nsa will be all over this… knowing the age of your visitor would seem to be real handy since those over 60 have 70% of the disposable income you could give these folks call in options… cheers…

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