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Brands have become increasingly persistent about the ways in which they follow individual consumers around the Web. When I look at a pair of shoes online on a Saturday but don’t buy them, chances are good that I will see those very same shoes pop up in ad banners on unrelated websites by Monday. On Tuesday, they’ll be in the ad feed of my favorite social networking site and Wednesday I might find a discount coupon in my email inbox to buy the shoes at a reduced price. By Thursday, I could feel like cornered prey, with those shoes popping up everywhere I turn online.

Nowhere during that process is the average brand likely to note that I bought a different pair of shoes from the same company on Sunday. That brand can retarget loafers at me for months, but if I’m happily walking around in tennis shoes, it’s a significant waste of resources (read: money) that could be much better spent.

Sometimes, the most important thing a brand can discover about its customer is when to back off. Companies are wasting millions of dollars chasing down prospects who either have already bought the promoted product or who have no intention of ever doing so, regardless of how many times and in how many places they see the same ad. We have come to a moment in the evolution of e-commerce when consumers expect a certain level of (accurate) personalization as retail table stakes, and when the backlash against poor personalization is swift and unforgiving.

Marketers have more tools and technology at their disposal than ever before in the history of commerce, but those resources seem to be spawning a whole new generation of poor practices. Companies use ineffective keywords, fail to optimize their advertising for mobile, or settle for poor ad relevancy. They spend based on historical habits rather than real-time data, and they miss out on meeting customers where they spend most of their time.

Many of marketers’ worst failings stem from an unwillingness or inability to consider the person more than the buzz about personalization. There are now algorithms available to help companies gain incredible insight into their consumers’ behaviors (including exposures that are very hard to measure, such as mobile advertising and television); but there is a reluctance to implement this technology due to marketers’ confusion around the value of such tools.

The person who buys from a brand might take a meandering path to conversion. That person might spend days, weeks or months evaluating a product before making a purchase, while marketing analytics usually work within limited (and arbitrary) look-back windows. Alternatively, that person might discard plans to buy one product when he sees another that better fits his lifestyle. The company that incorporates the marketing technology to help it understand this customer and all the interactions he has with a brand is far more likely to convert the person – regardless of what so-called personalization practices dictate.

Get to know consumers through their paths to conversion

Legitimate personalization is getting harder to do. Take the above example. If I searched for those loafers on my laptop but ultimately bought sneakers instead via my tablet, does the brand know that both of those interactions were with the same customer? If it doesn’t, it’s far more likely to make the annoying mistake of coming after me again and again and again with ads for a product that will never prompt me to convert.

The cost of that mistake is huge – both in terms of ad dollars and customer satisfaction. Why let this problem persist when marketing and advertising technology has advanced to the point where it’s no longer necessary?

Businesses need to start thinking about personalization in terms of individual customer behavior. Today’s consumer takes in marketing messages from numerous, disparate devices. He is influenced by what he sees on TV, by what he reads online, and by what he researches from his mobile devices. He might prefer to use one kind of device for product comparisons and another for purchases.

Personalizing marketing for this multi-device consumer requires a more sophisticated level of communication than persistent retargeting, and it hinges on data-driven insights gleaned from the use of proper attribution technology.

Customers still want personalization – they just want it to be better

In a poll this summer, Harris Interactive found that nearly three-quarters of consumers get upset when marketing messages don’t align with their interests. More than half of the 2,000-plus respondents said they’d willingly share information with brands online if they believed it would get them better experiences. Prospects don’t hate personalization; they hate sloppy personalization. They hate misdirected personalization. They hate personalization that completely overlooks the behavior of the actual person who decides to either buy a product or walk away from a brand forever.

By following the customer’s path to conversion through cross-channel, cross-device algorithms, brands can ensure that their marketing budgets go toward creating valuable and valued customer experiences for each person who interacts with the company. This includes embracing display frequency caps informed by accurate conversion and cost data. The alternative is pouring more money into arbitrarily chasing consumers all over the Web, regardless of the fact that the returns on such investments are overwhelmingly negative.

By incorporating the kind of attribution technology that is now available in today’s market, brands can finally use their past consumer interactions to accurately adjust the ones in the future.

[Image via Thinkstock]