Ghost in the Machine

SEMA News—July 2016


By Joe Dysart

Ghost in the Machine

Websites That Change Instantly Based on Who’s Visiting


Businesses are scoring more sales online by programming their websites to serve up custom marketing content based on who happens to be visiting them at any given time. The technique, known as website personalization, has been around a while, but as with most things in technology, personalization has been growing ever more powerful, precise and effective over the years, resulting in greater profits for companies that have mastered it.

“By offering a tailored experience to even the most casual of browsers, businesses will vastly increase their chances of driving conversions and customer loyalty,” said Cory Munchbach, director of product marketing at Blueconic, a web personalization firm.

Sanjay Dholakia, chief marketing officer of Marketo (, agreed: “The era of mass marketing is over,” he said. “Marketers must be present in every step of a customer’s journey, listening to their behaviors and speaking in a manner that’s relevant to every individual.”

In practice, website personalization draws on the data a business has on a visitor to create a custom website visit. For instance, a novelty products business that knows you’re a young, sports-minded male who just graduated from Dartmouth might use web personalization to feature ads for Dartmouth mugs, sweatshirts and jackets on its homepage. And a drug store that knows you’re a mom in your mid-30s with a two-hour job commute, three kids and a yet-to-be-housetrained puppy might change the ad space on its homepage to feature valium.

“Online personalization means showing more relevant, targeted content to specific segments of your visitors in order to increase key goals such as customer lifetime value, loyalty and conversion,” said Cara Harshman, content marketing manager at Optimizely (, another web personalization company.

Shantanu Narayen
Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe, offers tools that can build personalized websites from scratch.

Currently, at least 50 service providers are offering tools that businesses can use to personalize website visits for current and prospective customers. Some of those service providers, such as Demandbase (, offer tools that home in on a specific aspect of personalization. For example, Demandbase specializes in web personalization for businesses marketing to other businesses.

Others, such as Marketo and Pardot (, offer users a wide variety of website personalization tools in one suite. And they integrate those tools with other tools that help with many different aspect of marketing, including social media, traditional media, telephone sales and face-to-face marketing.

“By collecting more comprehensive, varied and relevant data across an individual’s many devices, marketers deliver more relevant digital experiences to the consumer, resulting in increased conversions and revenue gained from each visit as well as a stronger relationship with those individuals on which to build going forward,” Munchbach added.

Still other service providers, such as WordPress and Adobe, offer content-management systems that enable businesses to create entire websites from scratch that are imbued with website personalization features. In every case, all of the toolmakers serve up personalized experiences by drawing on data that a business has put together on people who visit its website.

Web Personalization Providers

Adobe (
Apptus (
LiveIntent (
Barilliance (
Baynote (
BloomReach (
BlueConic (
BlueShift (
BoomTrain (
Canopy Labs (
Certona (
Commerce Sciences (
Demandbase (
Dynamic Yield (
Evergage (
40 Nuggets (
Futurelytics (
GetSmartContent (
Granify (
Hubspot (
Kentico (
LivePerson (
Marketo (

Marketizator (
Monetate (
Movable Ink (
Magnetic (
Needle (
Optimizely (
Pardot (
Personyze (
Pleisty (
Qubit (
Reflektion (
RichRelevance (
Sailthru (
Salesforce (
SAP Hybris (
Segmint (
Sitecore (
Sitefinity (
Thunderhead (
Zaius (

Not surprisingly, company profiles on longstanding customers usually offer the most to work with, given that businesses often keep detailed records about purchases made, number of purchases made, general product preferences, city/state location, age, gender, responses to previous marketing messages and the like. Fortunately, thanks to analytics programs embedded in many business websites, businesses can also personalize a website experience for a person who is visiting a website for the first time.

As it turns out, even first-time visitors show up at a website with many knowns that can be ferreted out with analytics software, including city/state location, the computer operating system they’re using, the search term they used to find the website and similar data. Indeed, knowing search terms of first-time website users can be very helpful—especially, for example, if you’re Ford, GM or Chrysler and the customer visiting your website for the first time just found your site with the keyphrase, “Looking for the best sports car money can buy.”

Moreover, thanks to all those consumer-data harvesting companies we all know and love, businesses running especially aggressive web personalization campaigns can buy data on visitors they expect to drop by. For example, a local retailer that specializes in selling sky-diving equipment—and, one imagines, life insurance as well—could buy data from a credit-card company on everyone within a 10-mile radius who happened to jump out of a plane recently.

Besides leveraging raw data, high-end web personalization systems are also able to harness artificial intelligence (AI) to enable computers to “think” about the data they’re taking in and, ideally, craft subsequent website visits and follow-up e-mail marketing campaigns that are more effective. Plus, AI-driven web personalization can also be used to study large groups of similar customers, watch and analyze shopping and buying patterns, and make purchase recommendations to individual customers based on statistical analysis of the group.

Such AI technology could come in especially handy for a company such as, which might be visited many times each month by the same customer who looks at dozens of offers, products and online reviews and, ultimately, makes dozens of purchases—as well as many other decisions not to purchase.

“AI can reveal deep insights that the human eye would miss by paying attention to the right data and crunching heaps of it,” said Lauren McCrea, director of marketing and partnerships at BoomTrain.

One of the boons of so many different web personalization companies is that there should be a provider—or even a number of providers—that are offering precisely what you’re looking to do on your website. For starters, included in this article is a list of providers to check out that offer various forms of web personalization (Web Personalization Providers list, above).

Joe Dysart is an internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan.

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