William Park

25Jun

It works for the government and, according to William Park, it works for etailers too. Web surfers often balk at giving up personal information on the Internet. His solution? Don’t ask customers what they want, just watch them. Park learned the hard way: As director of personalization, he watched the one-year-old startup Net Angels, an email marketing network, bomb with consumers and then get sold in 1996. Users filled out detailed forms with their likes and dislikes, and the software would email them shopping plugs based on preferences.

“The belief then was sites could ask their customers anything because they were so enraptured by the newness of the Web. They’ll answer. They’ll give opinions. They’ll fill out surveys. It’s no longer the case,” says Park. The lesson learned? “It is far better to observe than to ask. What people do is always a far better indicator of future behavior than what people say they will do or where people live.”

Using data about what a consumer clicks on and buys has propelled Park’s latest Net baby, Digital Impact, into a 75-man crew with $6.5 million in venture financing. Like Net Angels, Park’s San Mateo, Calif.-based company emails shopping recommendations to people – but based on what they’ve bought in the past, not what they say they’ll buy. And Park believes it’s the marketing of the future: “Wouldn’t you rather get a coupon for a product you just purchased rather than a coupon for some random item? The Net has been slow to catch up because of the focus on acquiring customers. Since targeted offers can only be distributed to existing customers, it was overlooked.”

Park warns there’s a thin line between watching what customers buy and running a covert data gathering mission: “It’s now become critical for marketers to establish trust and establish a relationship, whereas in the traditional world, consumer data is traded like soybeans and stocks. When I say ‘observe’ I don’t mean to imply ‘spy.’ Rather, let the consumer give you information they’re comfortable with sharing.” – LB

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