You see personalization and targeted marketing all over the web.
Almost every commerce site offers you the opportunity to set up your
own favorites, rearrange their home page to suit your tastes, and be
remembered when you come to their site. Every site I visit allows me
to set up my own personalized content. I use MSN for some things,
like tracking my stocks and local weather. I use CNN for news. I use
Amazon for buying things and eBay for trading. And everyone lets me
do it my way.
As a system architect who concentrates on commerce sites, I
spend a lot of time figuring out how to do the very same things. Or
more appropriately how to use existing products to do what the client
wants to do.
What they really want is to get to know you better. They want
to know who you are, your age group, your sex is, how much money you
make, where you live, and your shoe size. Not all of them want all
that information, of course, but you get the idea.
To gather this information, different sites try one of two
approaches; both have limitations. The first approach is to ask the
person for specific information. Unfortunately, people lie. Half of
the programmers I've worked with in the industry have listed
themselves as CIO at one time or another on a magazine form in order
to get a free subscription (Note: that won't work with JDJ). And how
many people really check off the lowest income bracket in the section
that asks how much money you make? Not many. When people aren't happy
with providing such information, they either don't do it or they lie.
The other method that sites try is to implicitly derive
information about you. Every time you do a search or buy an item, you
may unintentionally be giving information about yourself.
Unfortunately, this is far from foolproof too. I have a friend who
always complains about a particular shopping site. He's a single guy,
but he bought a children's book for a friend's daughter once and ever
since he receives recommendations for children's books every time he
visits the site. He's in their "has children" category.
There's nothing inherently wrong with sites using either
approach. Commerce sites are in business to make money, and the more
they get to know their customers, the better they can serve them.
Unfortunately, the products that are available to help target their
marketing efforts have a dark side - they require people.
As far as I know, no one has ever developed a computer system
that can make a judgment call. Computers are great tools for
evaluating conditions and generating results, but they can't tell
that my friend doesn't have kids. The biggest mistake a commerce site
can make is to think that a package can reduce the number of people
they need in marketing.
It's obvious if you think about it for a minute. The more
finely tuned you want your marketing and sales to be, the greater the
number of categories. Computers can't create the categories any more
than they can determine the conditions under which a customer belongs
to one of them. A human being has to do it and input it into the
system. People also have to create the business rules for the various
special offers. They need to decide that a good cross-sell for
children's books might be children's software, and whether a book
that appeals to middle-aged women will also be attractive to younger
That's the key problem with personalization - it requires
people. There's no getting around it. So remember that the next time
you buy a computer book online and it suggests a Grateful Dead album
to go with it. Somebody had to decide they go together.
Sean Rhody is editor-in-chief of Java Developer's Journal. He is also
a respected industry expert and
a consultant with a leading Internet service company.