When, Where, and How Customers Want Recommendations

Going Beyond Explicit to Fortuitous

August 23, 2012

E-Marketers and E-Merchandisers now have amazing tools and services available to them to provide highly personalized recommendations in context. But, what kinds of recommendations do customers value? And, how will you know whether they’re in the mood for suggestions or not? Here are some tips: Pay attention to the customer’s context. If they’re browsing on your website, your mobile app, or in your store, recommendations are welcome. If they’re doing something else, avoid getting in their face!  If you provide location-specific recommendations for mobile device users, let customers opt in, when and where they choose. Make opt out the default for location tracking.


No matter how much time and resources you spend on developing a recommendations strategy to increase your sales, unless you are providing recommendations where, when, and how customers want to receive them, you won’t really be successful.

There are times and places where recommendations are welcome:

  • When we need a solution to a problem, or a product to fit a need.
  • When we’re shopping/looking for something specific.
  • When we’re shopping/browsing for ideas.
  • When we’re at leisure.

And there are situations where recommendations are not only unwelcome, but they can damage your reputation and relationship with customers:

  • When they interrupt what customers are doing.
  • When they are irrelevant to the customer.
  • When they aren’t correct based on customer history.
  • When they violate privacy.

Here are ideas that will help you understand where customers will appreciate recommendations and will help you craft your recommendations-delivery strategy.

Ads that Follow You

© 2012 Patricia Seybold Group Inc. and WebSudoku.com

1. The ad placement for Roaman’s in WebSudoku.com included items I had previously viewed on the merchant’s site (the purple tunic in the middle). It also offered me a discount Suit BOGO (Buy One Get One free) offer four days before I received the same offer in my personal email.


Ads that Follow You

Last week, Sue Aldrich, our recommendations and personalization expert, wrote an in-depth product evaluation on Adobe Recommendations for our Customers.com Technology Advisory Service. In the introduction to her excellent analysis, Sue wrote:

“Consumers have begun to notice that ads follow them around, and the press has been educating the public that their every click is recorded and leveraged by marketers. Is it too creepy that a site knows what I like and gives it to me? Or is it too wonderful for words? Conspiracy theorists lean toward the former; we hyper-shoppers and—readers are definitely in the latter camp.”

That very evening, I was relaxing after a long day by playing WebSudoku, one of my favorite time-wasters. This free game site allows you to play without logging in or identifying yourself, although it does make use of cookies to keep track of your best scores and how many games you’ve played. When you finish a Sudoku puzzle, the congratulations screen shows you your statistics (my fastest time for easy games is 1:58 minutes), and you are also served up an advertisement in the prime real estate at the center of the screen.

I have noticed the ads for years, and I have clicked through on several of them because they were right on target for me. After reading Sue’s article, I realize that was the intention—to provide me with on-target ads and recommendations. Indeed, the ad that evening (ads tend to show up repeatedly for a full day or so) was for my favorite online clothing etailer where I purchase most of my casual clothes. Not only was the ad from Roamans.com, it featured several items I had looked at (but not purchased) in the recent past. It even offered me a discount on suits days before I received the same offer via email (for which I’ve signed up). See Illustration 1.

So, do I think it’s creepy that the ad found me? Not at all. However, if the same ad showed up in one of my business apps (such as our corporate Google email), I’d be pretty freaked out. That isn’t the appropriate venue for such things.

The products that Sue writes about are designed for marketers/merchandisers who are finding new ways to make sure appropriate offers (like the Roaman’s ad) show up where customers hang out as well as what items to include in special offers and how to arrange items on a merchandising page.

But what if we turned personalized recommendations around and started thinking about what types of recommendations customers want and when and how they want to receive them?

When Are You Open to Recommendations?

Think about it. When are you “in the mood” for recommendations? Here’s our take, based on our own preferences and based on running hundreds of Customer Scenario® Mapping sessions and noting what they request:

  • When We Need a Solution to a Problem, or a Product to Fit a Need. We know that we need something to address an issue, fill a gap, or complete a set. When problem solving, customers are very open to, and grateful for, recommendations that lead them to solutions.

  • When We’re Shopping/Looking for Something Specific. Most of us are receptive to recommendations when we’re actually shopping or looking for something specific. Anything that will speed us to finding what we are looking for is welcome.

  • When We’re Shopping/Browsing for Ideas. Recommendations are also welcome when we are in the idea-gathering stages of a project (planning a vacation, wardrobe, party, etc.). In this situation, we are often actively looking for suggestions.

  • NOT When We’re Focused on Some Other Task. When we’re working on some other project or task, we definitely don’t want unrelated recommendations distracting us. What everyone finds annoying are ads that pop up at inopportune moments on our screens or our mobile phones—particularly any ad that blocks access to what we’re trying to actually do.

  • When We’re at Leisure. We’re often more open to recommendations when we’re in leisure mode than when we’re working or focused on something else. (If the Soduku ads popped up in the middle of a game, they’d be annoying. The fact that the personalized recommendations occur after each game is fine.)

One pattern we’ve noticed in our customer co-design sessions is that when customers are in problem-solving or planning mode (how do I?… what’s the best solution for?…), they turn first to trusted sources—colleagues (for work-related needs), family and friends (for everything else). So tapping our social networks for problem-solving recommendations first is human nature. Once we’ve gotten recommendations from trusted sources, the next step is usually ...

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