“Profiling Helps Us Help Our Customers”: How Microsoft Approaches Customer Analytics

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Seth Romanow headed up the most impressive web analytics team I had ever met. Compaq Computer tracked every visitor click, from banner ad to click-through to landing page and through navigation path to laptop purchase. In 2001, I profiled Romanow and his team as the best example I could find for my book, Web Metrics (Wiley, 2002).

When Compaq was purchased, Romanow’s group was put in charge of web analytics for all of HP. Convinced that he is destined to lead the way wherever he goes, I wanted to keep track of Romanow. I found it much easier when he became one of the founders of the Web Analytics Association—and a fellow director on the board.

Today, he is responsible for customer intelligence analytics in Microsoft’s Server and Tools Division. He is in charge of creating the online data collection and analysis platforms and delivering customer insight services to Microsoft.com stakeholders. I caught up with him for an update on what he—and Microsoft—are up to regarding customer experience.

If you are a Microsoft customer; if you register a Microsoft product online; if you visit the microsoft.com web site; or if you have created a Passport profile, you are probably in the customer profile database. Before discussing the reasons for all this data collection—providing value back to the customer—Romanow focuses on privacy:

“A relationship with a customer is going nowhere if you are only collecting data about them in order to sell them more. Microsoft customers are savvy about their privacy, and as long as the information is collected for their benefit, they will want to continue the relationship. So customer control is central because they have to be able to manage the information that they provide to us,” he says.

There’s an important relationship between privacy and courtesy.

“We don’t collect any PII [personally identifiable information] without the express permission of the individual. As an industry leader in privacy, we take great care to ensure customer data is handled properly and securely in a manner consistent with best practices and legal requirements.”

Data types

Microsoft makes a sharp distinction between personally identifiable data, preferential data and totally anonymous behavioral data. If you register as an individual and create a Passport profile with a user name and a password, you can still visit Microsoft web sites without logging in. At that point, you are yet another anonymous user who may or may not allow cookies to be set.

“Visitors who turn off their cookies do not have as rich a customer experience as those who leave them on,” says Romanow. “By understanding a cookied visitor’s anonymous behaviors and preferences, we can provide more relevant, personalized content.” For example, if a visitor checks out information about Microsoft Exchange Server and then wanders over into a completely different part of the web site, promotions for Exchange Server webcasts, events or certification courses might appear higher up on the page than they would otherwise.

“The final level,” he continues, “is when as user has a Passport ID, logs in and tells us what their role is in their company; what industry they’re in; and [is] more specific about their interests. The more we know, the more better experience we can provide.

“Your personal interests may shift, and you’ll switch your subscription from the Windows Platform Strategy newsletter to the Microsoft Security newsletter. Or maybe your role at your company may change and you may switch your subscription from the Microsoft Business newsletter for decision-makers to the TechNet Flash newsletter for IT Pros.”

Privacy remains paramount, Romanow maintains. “There’s an important relationship between privacy and courtesy, and a good relationship is always a courteous one,” he says. “If you ask to not be contacted at all, we keep that email address on an internal do-not-email list. We pull it out of the data warehouse to make sure nobody mails to it, and we preserve your decision for privacy in order to be respectful and compliant with opt-out guidelines and standards.”

Microsoft has learned that the more relevant the content, the higher the customer satisfaction and, in turn, the higher the engagement with the site and with Microsoft. More engagement with the site means more behavioral data, and so more insight—about customers and about the marketplace in general.

Romanow says he is pleased that the marketing side of the business understands the value of clickstream information. “They look at site behavior to make decisions about what content is working and how to improve user experience. They also want to see what events and webcasts people are most interested in.”

So much to explore

I ask Romanow my favorite question: What’s the hard part? His response is indicative of his innate intellectual curiosity: “The hard part is always that there are not enough hours in the day to follow all the threads. That’s it, really. There’s so much to explore. But I can tell you what’s interesting.

“Supporting real-time online personalization means giving serious attention to the performance and stability and accessibility of our multi-terabyte data warehouse. We are reworking it now to make it more “performant” so that we can move data closer to the edge of the network, where the customer connects to microsoft.com. In this way we enable the customer to more effectively manage their information and enable the web site to respond to their preferences and online behavior instantly.

“We’re also in the process of figuring out how to best manage the 50 to 60 GB of anonymous clickstream data generated by Microsoft.com every 24 hours. The question we are grappling with is: How do we manage that data and ensure that we are exploring the useful bits and not the extraneous data that is just overhead?

Romanow continues: “Then it gets really interesting when we want to integrate with all the other touch-point information we have to create a holistic view of the customer. The quantities of data, the different touch-points and the different systems created to capture and analyze information from those touch-points keeps things interesting.

“The real challenge is: How do you create a strong value proposition for the customer to exchange information and to want have a relationship with you? At Compaq, HP and Microsoft, that’s been the same quest. What’s the give-get scenario that delivers the experience that makes the customer want to engage? What they respond to and how they respond makes this side of the business exciting.”

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