Customer Interface: Getting Personal

If you’re really after loyalty, you’ll make your Web site over– One customer at a time.

When I first started selling for a living, back in the days when “Internet” was something Interpol might have used to snare worldly bad guys, my boss told me to dress for success. On his suggestion, I had some button-down shirts custom made for me. The expense was notable and the encounter awkward. But the results! I owned a half dozen shirts that were made for me and me alone. I felt wonderful every time I worn one.

I didn’t get quite the same rush of individualism or quite the same intense feeling of customer loyalty when I checked out CRAYON (CReAte Your Own Newspaper) at, but the feelings ran in the same vein.

CRAYON has you select from dozens of on-line news feeds, political commentaries and comic strips. Upon selecting “Publish My Paper”, you are presented with a document of your conception ready for downloading. CRAYON is an HTML generating machine. The downloaded source can be used daily, as it is merely a set of links to the news, weather and sports you want. Nifty, in an off-line, static sort of a way.

Do you want to go to Microsoft today? When you do, it is a very personal experience. You customize the Microsoft Network home page to your liking at You make up your mind about your favorite links, search tools, stocks, sports scores, news feeds, TV listings, comic strips, weather maps, ski reports, Web picks, movie listings, music clips, connection speed, and background color (whew). And you don’t even need to announce yourself. Microsoft is in cahoots with the Cookie Monster.

Briefly put, the Netscape Cookie is a file on your hard drive that stores a server-given user identification number. If the server doesn’t recognize any of the cookies in your file, it gives you one. If it does, then it’s “Hey there, George! How ya been?”

Once you’ve made all your choices, the MSN home page is your private page whenever you show up. It knows who you are and it knows what you like. It generates the page just for you. It has all your favorite stuff on it. Does this have value? Yes it does. Remember, the world is populated with people who are not able to bang out their own HTML pages at the drop of a link.

Exposing Yourself

But it’s time to re-think how you feel about privacy. How do you feel about telling so much about yourself to the big guy in Redmond? The issues here aren’t the same as they are for Win95 rooting around your system looking for software. This is straight tit-for-tat. You tell them a little bit, they provide a little value. Maybe that’s worth the time and maybe the information isn’t that private. But what happens when we up the anti?

There is a Bank of Jim Sterne on the Internet at No, you can’t see it, but I can. What’s it got? Articles of interest to me about money. How do they know what I’m interested in? I told them. You can too.

Knowing that a cookie can crumble, B of A requires a password. A cookie can be deleted, a cookie doesn’t know you if you switch computers, and a cookie can’t tell if that’s you or your significant other on the other end of the phone line. B of A wants to be sure its you and they want to know quite a bit about you.

Your name, address and e-mail are required. Then they want to know your phone number and the topics that might interest you:

Getting Organized Financially
Saving and Investing
Home Buying and Home Improvement
Building a Business
Economic and Financial Markets
Electronic Commerce
The Environment

Now they can create a newsletter home page with stuff you’re really interested in. Nifty. But wait a minute. Now they want to know your gender, age, occupation, income (feeling queasy?), whether you own or rent, and if you already a B of A customer.

Oh, and they promise to keep it to themselves:

Bank of America will keep all of your information confidential. It
will be used to:

Identify you on future visits to this site
Provide you information on topics of special interest to you
Save you time when you want to fill in forms or applications
Help us understand who is visiting our site

Even with these assurances, it still feels like more than they need to know to publish a newsletter. Even a personalized one.

The Proper Exposure

The fact is that there is precious little about people that _is_ still private. One quick look at you credit report and I can tell where you shop, what you paid for your house, your car, your education and whether you pay your bills on time. And that’s only the beginning. So if you want to live in a cave and pay no taxes and get no mail, then you too can be a private person. The trick, then is to strike a balance.

As a marketer, I am _desperate_ for all the information about my customers and prospective customers I can get. I want to know what they think and when they breathe and how often they eat pizza. As a consumer, I want marketers to stay the heck out of my kitchen. But I am also willing to give up just a little information in exchange for a lot of value.

That brings us to the Amazon.Com Bookstore at Let’s say you’re real serious about using this Internet thingie for business and you’re looking for a really good book on the subject like, oh… World Wide Web Marketing by Jim Sterne. When you locate it, you notice that has provided a list of categories it’s cataloged in; computers, Internet, marketing, etc. They’ve made it very easy for you to find other books on the subject of you choice. That’s good. But it gets much better.

If you specify a category, or an author, or even a title, will send you e-mail when a new book is published that meets your criterion. Why do I think this is the best thing since the Nordstom Personal Shopper? Because it works so well from both sides of the cash register.

There’s One Born Every Minute

From the sellers perspective, this is akin to a fish jumping into a barrel and handing you a gun. “Sell me!” they plead. “Here’s what I want to buy!”  they shout. “I want to give you money!” they insist. Further, I can start collecting a detailed database of what my customers want me to keep in stock. I can project sales based on the publishing calendar. Another Tom Clancy coming out? Let’s see, I’ve got 8,379 Clancy fans who will buy within three weeks. Guess it’s OK to invest in that new SGI server I’ve had my eye on. From the buyers perspective, things look much different.

Value Added Marketing

As a reader, I try my best to keep track of my favorite authors. A new Bruce Sterling? I want to know. Another Jill Ellsworth? How soon can I get it? My task includes reading the New York Review of Books and scouring the shelves at the three major bookstores in town every couple of weeks. These are dangerous duties. I will invariable walk out with more than I bargained for and with no guarantee I’ll have found what I was looking for in the first place. I realize this sounds painfully familiar to Web surfers the world over.

But now a new day has dawned! Here’s a vendor who is willing to scour the shelves _for_ me. Is willing to keep track of my favorite authors. I willing to send me e-mail telling me something I _really_ want to know. For Free!!

That’s real value. And what did it cost? I had to reveal what I like to read. Does that fill me full of fear that big brother is collecting infobits about me? Not for a second. It’s such a small amount of personal trivia it just doesn’t matter. It’s more than a fair trade for the service provided.

The One With The Biggest Database Wins

The way to win the hearts and minds of millions of Webers is to collect enough information about them as individuals to cater to their likes and dislikes. Make their visit to your Web site a personal experience. Allow them access to their private information at your company. Create a Web-based HAL-9000.

It’s good to see you again…  DAVE.

Since you were last here, we’ve added a few _new things_.

We’ve upgraded the _Extreme Sports_ area you like so much.

You haven’t bought any _neckties_ from us in over six months
so we’re having a special _DAVE sale_ today.

Your made your last _payment_ a week before the due date and
that entitles you to a _rebate_ on your next purchase.

We see you’re using the latest Netscape browser, but you don’t
have the AromaTron plug-in. Pick it up _here_.

Does this mean Webmasters everywhere will have to become back-office systems integration specialists? Does this mean customer information located in five different databases must be wrestled into a common, virtual datawarehouse? Does this mean job security for people who make tools that can generate cross-platform SQL queries on the fly from an HTML front end? Does this mean corporate data centers will have to wake up and smell the Java and implement object-orientation just to keep competitive?

Last week the company that custom made my shirts called to ask me if they should keep me in their database after all these years.

I said, “Yes”.