Target customers, but don’t insult them

Travel site Orbitz got into a bit of trouble with customers a few weeks ago when the Wall Street Journal reported that the company has been serving PC and Mac users with different hotel offers based on the computer they were using (among other factors).

Orbitz executives told the Wall Street Journal that after noticing that customers who booked hotels from their Mac computers would spend as much as 30 percent more a night, the company began show them different and sometimes costlier hotels than Windows users.

This kind of technology has been available for a while — companies have been using list segmentation to narrow their email targets and hit customers with the perfect offer, which may not be immediately visible to all customers.

The prices offered to both types of computer users were exactly the same, but the company served up the more expensive options to Mac users right away. Users still had the choice to sort by lowest price.

Still, the public wasn’t happy with this practice. A poll running on the Wall Street Journal showed that 71.8 percent of respondents believed your operating system should not be a factor used to serve search results, while only 28.2 percent thought that it should.

As a bit of a tech guy, the practice fascinates and concerns me. It’s been done for ages: A car salesman isn’t going to try and convince the family of six to leave with a new coupe. He’s going to recommend a model that he believes will meet their needs and desires based on his past experience.

When I receive an email from Amazon about products similar to those I’ve purchased in the past, I’m not angry Amazon is sending me these emails. I’ve shown an interest in similar products, so there is a high likelihood that I’ll be interested in similar ones (though it’s not always perfect: I don’t know why Amazon thinks I need so many handheld GPS units).

What concerns me, and I think a few other people, is the secrecy of it. The larger public didn’t know that this kind of targeting was possible or how it was being used. We trusted Orbitz to provide us with the best deals and instead we receive the deals with the highest margins. Losing that trust can mean losing a customer.

Done properly, targeting a customer can feel like you’re doing them a service, rather than trying to wring a few extra dollars out of them. The Amazon emails are seen by many customers as helpful suggestions, not a blatant money grab.

You should be using these types of technologies in your business because they can be a powerful way to efficiently connect the right customer with the right product. But be careful how you go about it. No one likes it when someone plays a little sleight of hand, especially when their pocketbook is involved.

Chris Gerber is the associate digital editor of Powersports Business and its sister publication Boating Industry, trade magazines for the powersports and boating industries. He manages the Powersports Business website and compiles and contributes to PSB’s twice weekly e-newsletter. Powersports Business is known for its exclusive national dealer surveys and in-depth industry analysis.



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