Personalization: Buy, Build or Outsource

It seems everyone wants to customize online content for individual customers. But should you trust an off-the-shelf personalization tool, build your own or just outsource the whole thing?

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But in-house staffers constructed the core of the personalization engine using Microsoft's Visual InterDev tool. They built Active Server Pages using VBScript, employed SQL Server's stored procedures, threw in Component Object Model objects and Dynamic Link Libraries written in Visual Basic or C++ and resorted to JavaScript when they couldn't solve a problem.

A staff of educators tests and rates the 3,000 products the company sells and assigns attributes to each. For instance, a game product may be labeled a math "practice" tool rather than an instructional aid.

Detailed Information

But to really make the system work, SmarterKids.com relies on information that parents voluntarily supply about the children who'll be matched to those products. Parents are asked to enter their children's name, grade, age, gender, learning style, learning goods and any test results that might help shape their profile.

To help with a child's skill assessment, parents can obtain a CD-ROM containing tests developed by SmarterKids. The results can be automatically uploaded to the site.

SmarterKids identifies visitors by depositing cookies onto their PCs. The cookies contain identification numbers that create records in the company's database, Viard says. When visitors hit the site, their cookies are recognized. They're greeted with one page if they're registered and welcomed as first-time visitors if they're not.

For parents who've set up a MySmarterKids page for each child, a call is made to the database to check stored profile information. A query is then made to the product database, which searches for the best matches in three categories: new products, best book and best toy. The product information is delivered via Active Server Pages. Hitting a button delivers more products in each category via Active Server Pages.

Next Step

In the future, SmarterKids plans to add a new personalization and promotion engine to deliver different sets of product suggestions to different groups of people - such as gift-givers or grandparents - based on their clickstreams, interests or demographics.

Although staffers again considered outside tools, they ultimately decided to build the engine in-house, Viard says, noting that they'll probably write the system in C++.

"With off-the-shelf tools, you're often locked in to the way they work. We found that a lot of these tools require you to rethink how your site is set up" from a technical standpoint, Viard says, adding that products using Java don't really fit with the Microsoft environment SmarterKids established.

More Than We Need

Many personalization packages come with their own databases and log-file analysis tools, both of which SmarterKids already has. "You might need only one-tenth of what (a tool) does," Viard says.

"Granted, there may be products that are good solutions if you started from scratch implementing that product," Viard says. "If you try to fit into those tools, you might have more problems than it's worth."

SmarterKids does plan to add Quadstone's data mining tool to help analyze the mountains of data it's accumulating. But the company has also hired people who understand the nature of their customers and who are skilled at putting that data to good use within the upcoming personalization and promotion engine.

"The best tool in the world still is not going to give you all the answers," Viard says. "You still have to know what you're looking at and what you're looking for."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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