Wednesday Apr 15, 2009

Update on Sun Web Personalization Initiative

I wrote an intro previously on SMILE, the Sun Machine Learning Engine, our new personalization system that utilizes predictive analytics. It went live in January, 2009, and we've been carefully measuring results since. So far, we are seeing higher click-through rates for SMILE served ads versus default ads, which is what we hoped would happen. But overall click through rates on these ads, whether personally targeted via SMILE or simply default, are very low, so we need more bang for the buck. We believe that the small ads served by SMILE in the right-hand navigation are easily overlooked -- many users simply ignore banner ads and/or the right hand column, concentrating on the central content of interest.

So our next step is to provide personalized recommendations in the body of the page. Here is a draft mock-up of a "carousel" type approach we hope to use:

Recommendations carousel

There are numerous challenges with this approach, as the page real-estate "above the fold" is highly valued, but that's where we need the recommendations to be if we really want them to be noticed and of value. A likely approach will be to make the carousel collapsible, so users can close it up if it's in the way, and then open it to look for personally recommended content. We'll also provide a new "All Recommendations" page that is solely dedicated to showing all recommendations for visitors.

We did a usability study recently to test these concepts and were pleased with the results. Customers told us:

  • They like what we're planning. We have literally millions of web pages, so if we can use our analytics to help customers quickly find the products, services, and content of most interest and value to them, we are saving them time and making them more efficient. Definitely a "win win" for all of us.
  • They would likely not notice the recommendations if they're not centrally located high on the page.
  • They don't have serious privacy concerns. Because we are an enterprise business site, they expect us to use analytics to improve the experience, and they'd appreciate the benefit. They would look at things differently if we were their financial institution, for example.
  • If the recommendations are not accurate or useful, they will quickly learn to ignore them. So the onus is squarely on us to ensure our system is up to the task of making accurate, valuable recommendations that meet our customers' needs.

This is an ambitious undertaking involving a whole bunch of teams across Sun, from Design to Publishing to Engineering to Analytics, so it's at least a few months away.  I'll keep you informed of progress and of course announce when you can check out your own personal recommendations!

Thursday Feb 05, 2009

New eMarketing Initiatives on www.sun.com

I've actually been on my new job for a number of months now, so it's time I start writing about it! After 10+ years working in the ESD (electronic software distribution) space here at Sun, it was time for a change, and so I took on a new challenge in the eMarketing realm. I am overall Program Manager on the sun.com web team for an initiative we call "Contacts to Revenue" (C2R). The essence of C2R is that we have zillions of web visitors, and especially downloaders, and we need to do a better job of identifying contacts and hopefully "nurturing" contacts into customers. There are several primary initiatives now underway.

First, we're creating new content we feel is of value to our customers and asking them to login to receive it. (If you don't already have a Sun Online Account, then there is a brief registration form that must be completed.) We feel this is a fair value exchange -- you tell us who you are, and we provide valuable information in return (examples include white papers, blue prints, webinars, and downloads). Here's an example:  Deploying Hybrid Storage Pools with Sun Flash Technology and the Solaris ZFS File System.

Second, I want to discuss Project SMILE -- The Sun Machine Learning Engine. We're building a new analytics engine to help provide more relevant content to web visitors. I'm the Project Manager for SMILE and pleased to say we went live with "phase 1" in mid-January. For the initial release, our goals were modest, focused primarily on improving the relevancy of small advertisements displayed on our main web site. We used a good ad banner server program previously, but it lacked sophisticated segmentation and targeting capabilities, so we built our own. If you are a return visitor to sun.com, we may serve you small ads that are more targeted to areas in which you've indicated an interest. All the ads are unobtrusive, appear in the right hand column, and are of this format:

Advertisement for xVM download 

For SMILE Phase 2, we're working on the ability to more proactively serve "Recommended Links" and other content of value based on web visitor's interests in our products and services.

We realize that asking for a login to obtain content and using machine learning and analytics to serve customers may be of concern to some. However, the bottom line is that we're in business to make a profit for our shareholders. Times are tough (duh), and it's imperative we do a better job of converting our web visitors to customers in order to grow our customer base and increase revenue. It's not a one way street -- we will continue to provide exceptionally valuable and unique content in return as well as striving to make relevant content more apparent and easier to locate on the web. 

In conjunction with these changes, we have recently updated our Privacy Policy to more accurately reflect how we'll be using customer data in support of these programs (among other updates). Please read it if you wish to be fully informed on this subject. (We also make it possible to opt-out of web personalization if you wish.) In any case, as this blog post and the new privacy policy illustrate, we're openly communicating about these new programs and changes. Our intent is to better serve our customers and our shareholders.

About

I helped design, build, and manage download systems at Sun for many years. Recently I've focused on web eMarketing systems. Occasionally, I write about other interests, such as holography and jazz guitar. Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/garyzel

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