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If a customer visited your bricks-and-mortar store four times over a two-week period only to leave empty-handed each time, what would you do? Offer to speak to a manager on that customer’s behalf? Suggest a discount?

Some consider it good customer service. But on-site as well as online, there’s a fine line between targeted offers that make customers feel understood and “stalking” them to the point that they feel uncomfortable.

Sean Johnson, online advertising manager for textbook e-tailer, uses the word “creepy” to describe some retargeting methods. He jokes about the items that are viewed on one site, then seem to magically appear in ads on others.

“I think, when a customer sees that, they realize that we’re going after them, and it freaks them out a little bit,” he says. What eCampus wanted was the ability to retarget customers, but not necessarily with individual products. They found it with SteelHouse.

Match the customer to the ad
Through The Opportunity Machine, SteelHouse’s e-commerce technology platform unveiled in June, eCampus can create a real-time, high-value targeted ad based on the number and type of items in a customer’s shopping cart, increasing the likelihood of click-through to the actual purchase.

“The goal is to figure out that customer’s behavior and match it with corresponding ad copy,” Johnson says. “We want to know what someone wants to do, and then make that happen.”

A customer with items totaling $150 in his cart might receive a discount or free shipping offer. He won’t necessarily feel stalked, Johnson says, and it may be just what he needs to affirm his purchase.

“Let’s say you have a site with a million monthly unique visitors,” says SteelHouse president and CEO Mark Douglas. “You’ve put a lot of effort into driving traffic to your site, depending on what people are interested in. But once they get there … everyone gets the same sale, the same offer.

“Our perspective is, if we can take into account the personality of a shopper, then the incentive … can be tailored.”

Those shopping personalities fall into a number of categories, among them premium shoppers, buying the best; determined shoppers, researching and viewing items multiple times; free shipping hunters; loyal shoppers looking for rewards; and wish list shoppers who put everything into the cart to check the total price.

In its simplest form, it’s akin to the comp system in Las Vegas, where some players might receive a free drink, but others might receive a free hotel room, based on their behavior and past relationship with the casino.

Personality-driven campaigns
SteelHouse, whose team includes direct marketers and engineers from the likes of eHarmony, the Rubicon Project and Oracle, calls this “behavioral commerce.” The Los Angeles-based company is gathering notice: It was named the startup most likely to succeed at the Launch: Silicon Valley 2011 showcase.

Everything in The Opportunity Machine is on the same platform, with the same interface, Douglas says. That interface scans millions of records in a fraction of a second, allowing users to easily build campaigns based on customer personalities.

“This is about understanding what the possibilities are,” Douglas says. “Your analytics tool may not be telling you who’s been on the site over the last 14 days with $300 in their cart,” only to abandon it on the shopping page. “But if you knew, that’s who you would want to be offering incentives to — the person who expressed a lot of interest but lost that interest. So we’ve reinvented the analytics side of all this and made it actionable.”