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Humanizing the Online Experience

Cindy Engstrom

In a digital world where we are all trying desperately to truly connect with our customers, how can we humanize the online experience? It may feel like we are in an arms-length, hidden-behind-a-screen situation, but there are ways to bypass the screen and get into the hearts of customers. Give them a feeling or emotion that locks them in and keeps them loyal. You love your customers, now get them to love you back.

The Good Old Days

When I think about this topic, I usually take a trip down memory lane back to my retail experience. Back to the good old brick-and-mortar days where people actually walked in your store and looked around. In this case, not only do you get to greet them in person, you get to show off window displays. You get to employ sales people who look like “the people who would shop here.” You can provide aspirational examples to consumers who would like to “look like” those employees. You can encourage them to look around and point out new merchandise. You can give them advice on what items are best for their needs. And to take this point even further, the customer can actually touch and feel the product in their own hands.

Now, how do you take the above scenario and fit that into the web? How do you make a consumer feel welcomed by your brand? How do you look them in the eye and say, “Good morning and thank you for stopping by?” How do these steps of service translate into the digital age?

It’s a lofty goal, but anyone who sells a product online today must take steps to humanize it. By “humanize,” I mean to attempt to give your brand human-like connections in an online setting.

Creating the Relationship

There are many mechanical ways of hitting the essentials, such as having registered users. Once registered, you can greet them by name and track their preferences with the intent of making their visit time more productive for them, which shines a halo on your brand.

The foundation of acknowledging that human qualities should be injected into your online presence should begin with an Apple- or Virgin-like focus on delighting the customer. This goal should permeate your user experience decisions; it should be communicated throughout your organization so that whenever a technical decision is made each team member revisits the core goal: delighting the customer.

Now, I have deliberately not mentioned sales—yet. Focusing on the customer experience drives sales and this focus keeps the human element top of mind. We cannot take shortcuts as humans to build enduring relationships.

Consider personal relationships and the amount of commitment that we devote to building connections. We are moving into an era where connecting more intimately with the consumer is an emerging survival strategy. The past decade was filled with tremendous momentum around rather simple marketing tactics such as flash sales and deals of the day. A low cost strategy that is devoid of brand loyalty will always have a place in certain businesses’ playbooks, but many brands strive to be evaluated beyond the deal mentality or value play. Many of today’s most successful brands strive to delight their customers, build enduring relationships and drive sales.

If you take a moment to consider the companies that do a fantastic job of connecting with consumers via multiple devices and multiple social media touch-points, several guiding principles become evident.

The Bare Necessities

Greet and welcome your guests to your website and make it efficient for them to quickly see what is new and why they should “look around.”

View your shoppers as peers and speak to them with the utmost respect and adoration. Long gone are the days of preachy marketing messages. Brands have to dance harder than ever to prove that products are fit, that we care about the environment and that we care about the people who work at our companies.

Communicate with your customers in the manner they prefer. Feel free to ask them how they prefer to hear from you. Asking as they unsubscribe from your e-mail list is too late. You’ve already lost them by then, so be sure to find out upfront.

Have a style guide for your brand’s social media’s voice. Establish who you are and what you represent. Draw a picture of what you look like; come up with some catchphrases. Your voice should be there to attract people to listen. Even once you have established a style, do your research. Tweeting is public and even though messages can be deleted, beware of screenshots. In other words, don’t be one of these guys.

Aim to be cohesive across devices. This is not yet that easy, but it should be a basic goal. For example, I can’t use my Amazon login on my Zappos iPad app, but I can on the website. As you can imagine, this is very frustrating, and my time doesn’t feel valued.

Going the Extra Mile

Value your users’ time and contribution with rewards and special offers. Keep in mind this is different from having a sale and should be executed differently. For instance, Sephora has a wonderful VIP program that never fails to make me feel tingly and special.

Act like a good boyfriend and notice the small things. Well, not literally as in, “Did you just get a haircut, honey?”, but in reality, I am always struck when a business notices that I haven’t been around. Although behind the scenes that is highly mechanical to implement, it results in a human response that makes the customer feels like the company cares (or that their management is smart enough to notice). These smart companies usually offer me a gift card that is just the right amount to make me go back.

Value retention by implementing anniversary treats. How unpleasant does it feel when you see a company you love giving a fabulous offer of a major discount or special, only to see in the fine print that it’s for “new customers only”? What about me – your loyal customer? I’ve been around for years! Don’t you know that the cost to keep me is cheaper than losing me and replacing me.

Make It Fun, Make It Real

At my company, Sircle Advertising, we endeavor to make the bare necessities fun with new greeting lines that make our users smile. It makes our customers feel good to log-in and see “Hi Cindy! You’re a firework!” or something fun like “Your eye makeup looks extra fabulous today!” We communicate with them at points when they are most curious for information, such as when their product samples have been shipped.

We work hard to be considerate of timing to make sure that a product review request, for example, arrives at a preset time after the user has received the product and she has had an opportunity to experience it. Timing is key and is a great way to show that you are paying attention.

The extra miles we walk to deliver an enhanced human experience are grounded in our reward system of virtual currency. Users in our sampling programs do not use “real” currency nor pay monthly fees, but instead they earn virtual currency for participating. This is a psychological incentive to participate but perhaps more importantly, the consumers feel valued for their opinions and time. Feeling valued is one of the greatest of human feelings. At the end of the day, go through your process as a customer and think outside of the box and ask yourself, “What would I like to see here to feel good about being on this site and buying this product?”

Cindy Engstrom (@cindybetty on Twitter) is CEO of Sircle Advertising, which hosts and, both websites that enables users to earn virtual currency to trade for beauty product samples. Sircle’s program is also on an exclusive beauty and fashion blogger network called iFabbo and will soon appear on a wedding website. Engstrom studied business at Marquette University, where she earned her MBA. She also holds two patents with another pending, and Sircle Advertising is her fourth start-up company. Her blog post on humanizing the online experience can be found at

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