Last month, ATG, Bazaarvoice, Forrester Research, and Multichannel Merchant hosted a webinar on personalization using user-generated content. I can’t speak for our partners, but this webinar was one of our best attended, so I decided to draft off its success by interviewing Cliff Conneighton, SVP of Marketing at ATG. Bazaarvoice and ATG share a number of high profile customers and with each additional deployment of our joint solution, we discover new opportunities for leveraging user-generated content and customer word of mouth to drive richer and higher performing personalization and merchandising experiences. Enjoy the interview with Cliff and please comment if you have any follow-up questions or thoughts!

1. ATG is well known for its personalization capabilities. How would you grade US online retailers, overall, on the quality and efficacy of their personalization strategies? What are the key obstacles these companies must overcome to implement more sophisticated personalization approaches?

I think we need to start with a quick definition of personalization, as it is a term that has been used in many different ways. At the highest level I define personalization as presenting the most relevant information to each customer during each interaction through each channel. In my view it doesn’t mean an individual plan for each individual visitor but rather a refinement of the content presented – images, messages, assortments, promotions, etc. – where appropriate, based on your knowledge of the customer and the reason she’s in your store. I believe the “1 to 1” view of personalization in itself overwhelmed many retailers and stalled adoption.

Based on this definition, I would give online retailers as a group a “C” for their personalization strategies to date. There are a few notable exceptions – and of course ATG clients would rate higher – but in general, industry personalization strategies haven’t moved much beyond a segmented email and a welcome back on the corresponding landing page. However, we’re seeing lots of momentum in the market and many of the obstacles holding retailers back have been removed. Retailers have traditionally been held back by either a lack of actionable knowledge of their customer base or a limitation in available resources or tools to act on the knowledge once gathered.

With the maturing of the e-commerce market, shoppers have mainstreamed and customer segments and shopping patterns have become more evident and defined. And the technology has advanced as well. Business data, merchandising applications, and automation have evolved to the point that merchants can identify trends as they’re happening and respond effectively to deliver more relevant interactions. As e-commerce and online shoppers continue to mature, growth will increasingly depend upon customer loyalty and lifetime value. Personalization is the ultimate loyalty platform and I look forward to the continuing evolution.

2. As personalization continues to mature, what steps has ATG taken to give the merchandiser more (and easier) control to deliver tailored shopping experiences? How do you see user-generated content playing a role there?

We have done a variety of things to continue to enhance the merchants control and capabilities around personalization. First and foremost we have insured that merchants have a consistent and complete view of the customer – all the products they view and purchase, and all the interactions they have with the site. Secondly, we have developed business applications that help merchandisers use this knowledge to easily implement personalized promotions, merchandising strategies, marketing campaigns, and search rules without having to go to IT. Most recently we have added algorithms and automation to our offering that help merchandisers even better negotiate the delicate balance of rules-based vs. automated personalization.

The growth of UGC and consumer participation in general only increases the need for personalization. UGC, while incredibly valuable, can also quickly become overwhelming. As the sheer quantity of content grows, it becomes more important to help each consumer filter through it and find the perspectives, people, and advice most relevant to him in particular. In many industry surveys, consumers have said they value opinions from others “like them.” Personalization provides the ability for sites to connect the right customers with each other.

3. Acquiring eStara in 2006 was a great move for ATG, both for the business and as a value add for your clients. How does this technology extend a brand’s ability to converse with its customers, and what are some of the more innovative things you’ve seen clients do with this solution?

The eStara products have been a great addition to our offering. Today, e-commerce is multi-channel. Shoppers see stores and brands; they don’t think in terms of channels. They expect seamless transitions and consistency across every interaction with a brand, no matter what channel they use. Some customers still prefer to complete a purchase directly with a real person, regardless of how good your site may be. The eStara products enable merchants to proactively reach out to customers on a Web site who may be highly valuable, may be researching a high consideration product, may be stalled online, or may simply have a history of researching online but buying by phone or in a store. These customers can be connected directly from the site to a customer service representative (CSR) who is immediately aware of who they are, their history with the company, and their current activity on the site. The CSR can immediately help the customer accomplish her goal. This ability has an immediate impact on conversions and customer satisfaction and goes a long way to build loyalty.

 

The eStara team has been incredibly nimble and has worked closely with customers to evolve the product set to meet a very interesting mix of needs. I could spend hours talking about customer examples but I’ll narrow it done to just a couple. Jenny Craig uses eStara to connect browsers on their corporately run Web site directly to their local franchisee. Franchisees love this as it provides a direct business channel for their local outlet. Customers love this as it provides an easy way to get engaged with a local person who can immediately get them started on their weight loss goals. And Jenny Craig loves it as it enforces their brand difference which as they state is “a personalized approach.”

There’s also a viral marketing use of the eStara services that’s taking hold and getting huge media attention, especially in Europe right now. Just one example is of Sporting Portugal, a major Portuguese soccer club, which created an interactive viral marketing campaign using eStara Click to Call. The campaign aimed to increase membership and attendance at games by phoning soccer fans as they’re watching a video online. As a result of the campaign, the all time record for season ticket sales was broken the first day of the season, and the creativeness of the drive resulted in massive interest from the local and national media.

4. Our readers like actionable ideas that are feasible to execute. What are your top 3 ideas for merchants integrating ATG and Bazaarvoice to drive value for consumers and growth?

There are an endless number of actions that a merchant can take once they’ve integrated Bazaarvoice with ATG. The first three things I’d consider are:

A. Combine ratings & reviews with personalization to show top-rated product recommendations by customer segment on your home, search and category pages. Drive more sales with relevant and highly rated products for all visitors.

B. Include top-rated products in campaigns triggered by customer actions such as order confirmation and shipping emails, abandoned cart follow-ups and messages to shoppers using gift lists.

C. Use Click to Call or Click to Chat to reach out to highly engaged customers by targeting personalized invitations to active reviewers. Keep these customers engaged, informed and they’ll happily sing your praises!

5. Tell us about how a customer who really gets it would use ATG’s capabilities far more extensively and intelligently than the average.

The customers who truly “get it” realize that one size does not fit all. Different shoppers reach their stores with different goals, needs and tastes. The better merchants are able to understand what the varying desires are and the faster and more completely they are able to respond to them, the more successful they will be.

It’s a simple thought – shoppers return to stores where they have had success. The complexity lies in recognizing that success for one shopper may in fact be failure for another. Some shoppers want to browse, connect with merchants and fellow shoppers and extend and enjoy the process. Others want to get in the store and get out. Some shoppers know exactly what they want and simply want to purchase it in the most convenient manner while others want detailed information, recommendations and advice from others and want to consider their purchase across visits and channels. Further complicating the story, success for a single shopper will vary across shopping trips. History provides a good view of the customer but not necessarily an understanding of how they want to shop today.

I believe the merchants who “get it” are those who think about their Web store as a living entity that is constantly learning, reacting and enhancing customer visits – across channels. They are merchants who plan at a segment level but react to each visitor when they’re in the store. Merchants who balance direct control and automation to deliver effectively and efficiently. Merchants who have moved beyond guided navigation and strive to deliver guided serendipity – where shoppers not only accomplish their initial task but are also delighted by the products that they trip across along their path through your store.

6. The eCommerce space is still quite fragmented, and much of it is beginning to tie into the enterprise marketing space. What are your projections for consolidation in this industry, in light of your recent acquisitions?

I don’t believe any of these “spaces” are distinct – obviously you can’t do commerce without marketing, just as you can’t do commerce without servicing your commerce customers. The smart merchant looks at the end-to-end customer experience holistically, plans an architecture that enables a single view of the customer, then selects a platform that implements the architecture and add-on products and services that fill out all the functionality the consumer expects – without regard to what “buckets” or “spaces” someone thinks they fit into.

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