woman peeking out from behind a curtain
PHOTO: Nik MacMillan

To some people, phrases like “online monitoring” and “customer data capture” conjure images of surveillance — of online retailers stalking their movements as they browse websites. A vocal minority of people believe there is something inherently Orwellian in tracking and analyzing customers’ online activities. But in actuality, both the concept and its application online are misunderstood.

Borrowing From Brick and Mortar Practices

While this is a relatively new practice online, it has been commonplace for retailers to observe shoppers’ behavior in stores. Managers will watch how customers interact with staff and merchandise, and store personnel will engage shoppers to ask their opinions about particular brands, products and styles. Retailers also keep track of what times of the day the store is at its busiest, which items prove to be most popular, whether customers are shopping for specific products and whether they can find what they’re looking for.

That analysis helps to build intimate portraits of customer behavior, and it yields insights that can be used as the basis for decisions about a store’s layout, the appearance of its displays, what merchandise to purchase and more.

Related Article: Brick and Mortar: Reports of Its Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Body Language: Both Real and Digital

One big advantage that, until recently, operators of physical stores had over online retailers was the ability to observe shoppers’ body language, which is one of the most important aspects of communication.

Now, however, data collection and analytics tools enable online retailers to observe shoppers’ digital body language. This type of online behavioral analytics is just an extension of the practices employed offline by every brick-and-mortar store and shopping mall the world over.

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Understand that the primary purpose of these analytic activities is to determine the mindset of customers, not to identify personal information.

Mindset has a crucial part to play in the experience visitors have when engaging with websites. The consumer’s mental attitude contributes to the ways in which they react to content, including how they respond to advertisements, promotions and even a website’s navigation and structure.

By measuring and evaluating customers’ digital body language, we can determine their mindset, and thereby learn whether, for example, they feel disoriented, have a lack of interest in the content, are curious about exploring content further, or are perhaps mindful or focused — or somewhere in between all of those.

In the traditional retail environment, some shoppers are focused and decisive and have set goals. That mindset often results in quick, direct and time-efficient purchases. Other people may enjoy exploring. They tend to be much more hesitant when making a purchasing decision and require more time and a less direct checkout process.

Related Article: Reading the Digital Cues: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Changing Customers' Mindset Isn’t the Goal

Understanding online behavior can help retailers optimize the customer experience and provide a better purchasing journey for the customer, resulting in positive business outcomes. But changing a customer’s mindset isn’t the aim or solution. The focus is on altering the overall experience, to provide a comfortable environment in which buying decisions can be based on individual needs.

Once the mindset of the customer has been identified, providing considered, intelligent targeting is key. For example, retailers must understand that a focused customer may not wish to be bombarded with frantic communication and possibly irrelevant content. In fact, retailers’ online targeting efforts should prioritize consumers who may be exploring.

The brick-and-mortar customer experience was originally focused on creating an environment where staffers understood a customer’s shopping needs and behaviors. This meant knowing when to offer assistance and when to step back. Optimizing your online targeting to echo the characteristics of a confident and helpful salesperson is crucial to building a more lifelike experience.

Related Article: How Design Thinking Can Help Improve Your Organization's Customer Experience

Analytics Harnesses Collective Insight

Why are we so scared of digital body language and behavioral analytics? Why is a practice that is commonplace in physical stores met with suspicion and trepidation when it happens online?

The misunderstanding stems from the assumption that efforts to gauge digital body language are focused on individuals, rather than the collective. To put it simply, the focus is the cumulative digital activity of the users of a website or a mobile platform. Retailers are interested in the links people click on, the pathways they take, the decisions they make or don’t make, and all of the other interactions that take place during the customer journey.

Analytics simply harnesses collective insight to improve the customer experience.

We live in an age where digital privacy is a trending topic in the media, and there is a newfound lack of trust for the companies that have held our data for years. While there may be a small group of people who are uncomfortable with data collection and analytics technologies being used in ecommerce, those concerns are often based on little more than the fact that such behavioral data is being used online rather than in physical stores.

Today, consumers demand a personalized, seamless and effortless online shopping experience — one that is free of any barriers to purchase. They want expedited payment processes and next-day delivery. In fact, they want to be able to shop on the internet in the same way they would if they were physically standing in a store.

This change in behaviors and purchasing habits has created a need to keep up with new and ever-evolving requirements and demands, all of which are echoed by online competitors in a race to provide the most efficient customer experience.

To meet consumer expectations and succeed in a crowded and competitive online environment, innovative businesses must harness digital body language and behavioral analytics to gain a greater insight into how their websites are used. With access to intelligent and actionable data, these businesses can react when there are issues — making their websites far more responsive and personalized. Which is exactly the type of experience that shoppers are used to, and exactly the type of experience they expect.