Retailers increasingly use data to personalize an online shopping experience. Geo location, shopping and browsing history, weather — all can impact how products are presented to online shoppers. Among the leaders in personalization technology is Monetate. Its co-founder and CEO, David Brussin, recently spoke with Practical eCommerce.
Practical eCommerce: What does personalizing a shopping experience mean, exactly?
David Brussin: "When you think about retail before the Internet, it was a very personal interaction. You’re talking to another person in a store. You’re interacting with a lot of people and products and physical displays. The people working in that store have an opportunity to pay attention. They have an opportunity to pay attention to you, to how often you’ve been there and maybe what you bought in the past. They have an opportunity to pay attention to what you said about what you were looking for and which items you seemed to like or fit you well, if it was an apparel retailer.
"Online, the opportunity — when we all got started in this space in the ‘90s — was to do even better, to pay attention to more data about the relationship between the consumer and brand and to make the experience even more relevant to each individual shopper.
"Unfortunately, some of the technology, especially in the early days, has gotten in the way of that. Monetate delivers on that original idea that shopping online can be more personal, more relevant, and more valuable for the consumer and for the retailer than it even was in a brick and mortar context."
PEC: If a visitor is on a retail site, do you personalize browsing results, site search results, or all of the above?
Brussin: "Browsing results, site search results, and everything in between. When visitors come in to a site that’s being personalized by Monetate, we’re paying attention to all the data that can help us give those visitors a better experience. Where they’re coming from, what the weather’s like there, what they might be looking for, what they’ve searched for, and maybe what they bought in the past.
"We can use that information to make all kinds of changes. We can change the structure of the page they’re seeing, the content creative, or change the photography to be more relevant. For example, if you’re shopping for apparel in New York City, you’re probably going to be looking for styles that are a little different than if you are in Dallas, Texas."
PEC: What sort of data are you referring to? Let’s just cite that example you gave us: a shopper in New York versus a shopper in Dallas.
Brussin: "Well, all of the data that we pay attention to is anonymous. We don’t know who the visitor is. But we know some things about their relationship with that particular brand. We know roughly where they’re coming from — what city. We know a lot that’s based on where they’re coming from. What the weather is like there, what stores are in their neighborhood. We know how they came in to that visit. Did they click on an ad in Google? Did they search for something? Did they come in directly or click a link in an email?
"We know what that particular anonymous visitor did the last time they were on the site. Did they buy something? Was it a particular brand or category that they were interested in? We can use all of that to provide context to understand a little bit about the visitor and what’s relevant for them in their life and also their intent. What are they actually looking for? What are they trying to accomplish today?"
PEC: How can you tell intent?
Brussin: "We have to infer intent unless they do something very explicit to tell us. We can infer intent from things like a search. If someone searches on the site for a particular brand or maybe a color or a size or a particular product, it tells us something about their intent, that they’re interested in that particular item or things that might be related to that item."
PEC: Say I’m a 53-year-old male in Colorado. I go to one of your clients — a retail clothing site — and I’m looking for a shirt to buy for myself. How will my experience differ from a 22-year-old male that lives in Florida?
Brussin: "Starting with age, we don’t know that you’re a 53-year-old man, and we don’t know that the other visitor is a 22-year-old man. What we know maybe about age or about gender is the interest that you express through your actions, through your behavior on the site.
"If you come into an apparel site and you look for men’s products rather than women’s, we can infer that you’re probably shopping for a man. It might be for yourself, it might be for someone else. Depending on the styles that you focus in on, we might be able to infer something about your style interests. Now, that might be highly correlated with age, but we don’t actually know that you’re a man, and we don’t actually know that you’re 53 years old. Coming in from Colorado, looking at products for men on a clothing site, there are a few things that we can predict that are going to be more relevant for you than they might be for someone who’s behaving differently and coming in from somewhere else.
"Number one, the products that sell well to people coming from the geographic area you’re coming from may be a bit more relevant for you. Especially in apparel, there’s a fashion context that people in Colorado are probably wearing styles and colors that are little different than what people are wearing in other places. That’s reflected in the brick-and-mortar world and has been for many years. Even the large brands with stores all over the country stock and merchandise their stores differently in Colorado than they do in Florida. They focus on the products that sell well in Colorado. That’s one of the first things that we can do.
"We might change the photography to be more relevant to your location, maybe showing lifestyle shots that feature a Colorado vista rather than an urban environment in New York or a beach environment in Florida. A beach doesn’t have a lot of relevance for you coming in from Colorado. Mountains don’t have a lot of relevance for visitor coming from Florida — unless it’s in a traveling hospitality space."
PEC: To continue the example, say I complete the purchase of a shirt for myself under the scenario that we just discussed. One week later, I go to the exact retailer looking for a shirt for my 22-year old nephew, who lives in Florida. Will I see something there that appeals to him?
Brussin: "When you first come back into the site, you might see things that are tailored to what we know from our relationship with you so far. That retailer is going to want to focus on what they think they’ve learned. You’ve come in from Colorado; you’ve purchased a certain brand and category in the past, maybe certain sizes and colors. The best prediction we’re going to have at that point about you is going to be based on what you bought the last time.
"Should you start to shop for something else, we get new real-time data. We get data that says that today you’re showing an intent that’s different. That starts to become a part of the picture in real-time. We can start to focus on showing you content, the products we experienced that are going to be relevant for someone who’s shopping for the products that you’re looking at, which in this case might be for your 22-year-old nephew."
PEC: Is personalization good for all retailers? Can you think of a scenario where a retailer would not want to use personalization?
Brussin: "I think that consumer experience expectations have changed dramatically over the last few years. The iPhone is a good marker of the beginning of this period. It also happens to coincide with the Web 2.0 revolution in interface design on websites. Those two things marked the beginning of a period where consumers start to see that some brands were providing them with really rich and relevant contextual experiences. Before that, I think that brands could get away without doing any personalization. I still think it hurt them, but they could get away with it.
"Today, it’s a very different story. There’s a spectrum at one end. If you’re not doing enough personalization, you’re actually providing a bad customer experience because it’s disrespectful; it ignores the context of the relationship that you as a brand have with that consumer. At the other end of the spectrum, you might have personalization that can be disrespectful by being creepy or over-the-top. There’s a balance. There’s a spot in the middle of that spectrum. It’s different for each brand. But no relevance, no context, and no personalization I think is no longer an option for any brand."
PEC: You said “creepy" personalization. What is that?
Brussin: "The benchmark here is thinking about what surprises a consumer in a bad way. If you use the information about your relationship with a particular consumer in a way that they expect, that’s respectful. That says, 'I actually remember that you’re my customer. I remember our relationship. I remember what you bought from me in the past. I’m not going to do disrespectful things like try to sell you a product you’ve already bought.'
"If you think about some of what’s going on in the ad industry that’s outside of the context of what we work on, there are folks talking about what it means for consumer data to flow from site to site and for advertisers to know what articles you might have read on one site when you go visit another site. That gets into a realm where the consumer is not necessarily expecting that. They don’t expect that to be a part of your context. They’re not expecting you to know or pay attention to their browsing history.
"If you use that information, it could be surprising in a bad way. It could make the consumer feel like they’ve been surprised that there’s some attention being paid that they didn’t ask for or expect.
"I don’t think that affects our customers because our customers are working in the context of a single brand and a relationship with a consumer in the context of that brand. I think that the work they do to pay attention to that relationship really falls squarely in the category of things that the consumer does expect and, increasingly to my point earlier, that the consumer demands."
PEC: You’re the co-founder of Monetate. When did you launch the company? Who owns it?
Brussin: "My partner, David Bookspan, and I founded the company in January 2008, just over five years ago. We are a venture-backed technology company, which means that the company is supported by venture investors. We’ve got some great investors at First Round Capital and OpenView Venture Partners. They’re helping to fund and support the rapid growth of our business.
"We’re located just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We have a few offices around the U.S. and people spread all around the U.S. and an office with a cluster of people in London, England as well."
PEC: Tell us about some success stories of companies that have used your platform.
Brussin: "One of the things I am most proud of at Monetate is the impact we’ve had on some of the world’s largest brands. Traditional retailers like Macy's, Petco, Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and pure commerce players like Freshpair and Revolve Clothing, even QVC, all use Monetate to drive a much better experience for their consumers and to drive more revenue for their businesses. We’re also in the publishing space with great clients like National Geographic and the travel and hospitality space with great brands like Frontier Airlines."
PEC: Anything else?
Brussin: "One of the most important trends I’m seeing is the shift to customer-centricity. Marketers and sellers everywhere are focused on a big change in commerce that puts the customer at the top of the organizational chart. They used to be at the bottom of a bunch of different channels. Now, the customer is ending up at the top of the organization chart. That focus on the customer creates a mandate to really understand their relationship between brand and customer, and to be able to act on it, to do the right things for each individual customer.
"What we’ve seen is that the ideas behind the big data movement — being able to pay attention to more data, to do it in real-time — are really becoming mainstream."