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Impersonalization, by Sean Rhody

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 men.

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.

Author Bio
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.


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