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Taking It Personally: Building Relationships Online


To increase impact and effectiveness, personalized Web sites should be constructed in different ways to interact with multiple audiences.

To connect with customers today, marketers must learn to create personal relationships online. While it may seem ironic to talk about building personal relationships without face-to-face interaction, research shows that it works. With Web personalization quickly becoming the norm in online marketing, pharma companies can capitalize on this strategy to provide meaningful information while building a loyal customer base.

What is Web Personalization?
Simply defined, Web personalization is the ability to communicate with Internet users based on their personal preferences and habits. It’s about delivering content in a voice, tone, and style that appeals to individuals, and carrying on a conversation with users in order to connect with them based on their interests. It also allows users store their preferences, searches, and recommendations, negating the need to search for them again and again.

Personalization allows marketers to tell their product/service story in the most compelling way possible. It provides a fast and easy way to disseminate vital information while gathering helpful brand planning and sales optimization data. 

Many consumer marketers already use Web personalization in ways that pharmaceutical companies are just beginning to echo. Google users, for example, can choose how many references they would like displayed, select a specific interface language, and even design their own home page that displays local weather, time, and news. Return visitors to Amazon.com are greeted with a personal hello. When they buy a product, buyers receive merchandise recommendations that may be related to their choice, as well as merchandise that will be available soon-all related to personal interests as determined by past Web site visits and purchases. 

Personalization in Pharma
Growing use of Web personalization in the pharmaceutical industry conforms to the rapid growth of healthcare-related Internet use. According to a study by comScore, the number of health information Web sites grew 21 percent over the last year-more than four times the growth rate of the total US Internet population. 

Historically, pharma Web sites have provided information about a product and disease state, as well as the company. Content, tone, style, and graphics remain the same no matter who visits the site; frequent visitors are not identified or rewarded for returning; and information gathered is “lumped” into one or few buckets. T hese Web sites serve merely to disseminate of information-forget about building relationships.

However, a growing number of companies are exploring-and implementing-certain forms of Web personalization strategies. For instance, the American Orthopaedic Association (AOA) designed a Web site to help connect with multiple potential audiences and get users to participate in the AOA’s Own the Bone program; a comprehensive program to help reduce the incidence of future fragility fractures (breaks that occur easily as a result of osteoporosis). AOA identified three potential audiences, and the site was constructed with separate sections for patients, healthcare providers, and sponsors. To create the strongest possible personal connection with each audience, the tone and content for each section was customized to appeal to the interests of each group. Additionally, AOA developed three recurring “calls to action” for each of the groups. These calls ranged from following steps and measures to hospital participation in an ongoing database and actual financial support.

As part of their continuing commitment to fight breast cancer, AstraZeneca developed an inspiring personalized Web site called “Celebration Chain,” which allows visitors to create animated dolls that she can “identify” with. Users can choose physical attributes for the “paper” doll (such as hair and skin color), as well as the doll’s relationship to the user. Users are also encouraged to select characteristics that reflect the individual they’re celebrating-from sports fanatic and fighter to someone who “makes you laugh, gives hugs, lights up a room.” After the doll has been built, the information is played back in an animated story format. This site celebrates triumph, relationships, and the use of personalization technology.

Planning Strategically
Not everyone lauds the Web personalization trend. When it comes to initiating or augmenting personalization efforts, every company has to consider several factors: What does it take to compete? What is the cost of personalization? What kind of a return are you looking for? And what kind of a return can you expect?

The journey toward Web personalization begins with strategic planning and a conscious effort to make Web content is consistent and compatible with offline tactics. This assures a seamless approach to marketing initiatives.

To build a strong personal relationship with visitors, market research should be leveraged to reveal specific target audience traits. Additionally, an analysis of blogs and chat rooms can provide hints from customers of unmet wants and needs.

Get the Voice Right
One of the most important parts of Web personalization is the ability to “speak” to visitors in the right voice, with language that is more technically based and specific for physicians, scientists, and others with a technical orientation; and more colloquial for patients and consumers. When built correctly, Web personalization incorporates the ability to remember data from each unique visitor. Each visit then becomes more engaging because the site can pull from its memory, and “talk” with the user because they’ve already met.

Format for Ease and Flexibility
To increase impact and effectiveness, personalized Web sites should be constructed in different ways to interact with multiple audiences. A site designed for physicians may look and “feel” different from a site that welcomes patients. The commonality lies in the consistent use of fonts, colors, and design. Personalization should not impede navigation speed or ease. When planning, designing, and implementing a personalized Web site, make sure the site can bed load and navigated with ease. In one-to-one communication, ease of use and access builds relationships.

Adapt a Current Web Site
If a Web site already exists, personalizing it can begin with an analysis of who is currently being left out of the online conversation. Again, this is best achieved through market research. Once you know what’s missing and what people want, add these in the existing site wire frame. If done properly and initiated early, this can net advantages and help ward off confusion, errors, and time delays, saving money on Web reconstruction efforts.

Constantly Test the Personal Relationship
To create an extraordinary online experience, it’s crucial to test the site’s usability, content, and ability to provide needed information. Begin by listening to the customers through qualitative research, online polls, and online advisory groups. As the site evolves, monitor relationships by analyzing data. Which pages are users visiting most frequently? What content has stickiness (high average time spent on a page)? What paths are being used to access information (a process called “tunneling”)? This testing will provide feedback you can use to refine the personalized relationship. 

Web personalization is a powerful method for accelerating brand identity by building relationships. Web sites can be developed based on how people meet others, learn from each other, and give each other information to create lasting relationships. If built carefully with strategic intent for the long-term goal, a personalized site can provide rewards for both users and marketers.

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