Last month I presented at Adobe’s Digital Marketing Symposium in New York alongside Sabrina Pasini, senior manager of digital acquisition at American Express, and David Bacon, digital marketing strategist for Verizon Wireless—leaders and innovators in their organizations and in their fields. But I couldn’t just let them present their “best ofs.” Not for this crowd of digital marketing powerhouses.

Instead, I challenged Sabrina and David to walk us through the typical conversion journey on their respective sites. And I pushed them to answer the question that’s been keeping us all up at night: What does it take to convert an anonymous visitor to a consumer? Moreover, this had to happen on the spot, in front of a large audience of seasoned—and skeptical—digital marketers. New Yorkers, no less. No pressure.

The scenario: An anonymous visitor lands on your site. This person could be male or female, any age, any demographic. In the case of American Express, Sabrina knows her anonymous visitor clicked on a display ad. David has a clue, too—this same visitor wound up on the Verizon Wireless site after reading a review on an affiliate site and doing a subsequent search. That “how” is key—it’s Sabrina’s and David’s first—and only—clue as to who this person is and what he or she is about.

The next layer of the challenge: This same anonymous visitor is going to the American Express and Verizon sites. You’re not one-dimensional and neither are your customers. They apply for credit cards, buy cellphones, upgrade data plans, and engage in a host of other experiences online, from searching and reading to shopping and booking trips. However, their journeys differ as does the definition of “conversion” from site to site.

Now down to business—would the user apply for a credit card or buy a new cellphone? Or both, perhaps? Would this person remain a nameless, faceless passerby, or almost immediately transition into a persona and, ultimately (but quickly), an engaged, active customer? What could these heavy hitters from American Express and Verizon surmise at that moment, with all eyes on this personalization journey?

David started his presentation by reminding us (as I’ve said post after post) that there are no anonymous visitors. Even first timers provide some actionable information from the minute they enter your site. You know what browser and OS they’re using, the referring URL, geolocation, and whether they’re returning or new. And, pretty much from that first click, the picture starts to form.

Step 1: Watch for Signals

Challenge accepted.  David started with what he already knew—is the customer new or returning? (New, of course—it’s trickier that way!) What OS is the visitor using? What’s the referring URL? David instantly sized up the user’s point of origin: an affiliate site ad on a retail partner page. It’s a discount site, so maybe this guy’s looking for a more value-focused experience.

Sabrina tracked and identified her prospect, whom she dubbed “Robert.” Robert was assigned a cookie and presented with a customized homepage featuring cards geared to what may be an interest of his: travel. Why travel? Because thanks to third-party data tracked before he landed on AmericanExpress.com, we know Robert is a traveler from Atlanta who’s interacted with Delta banner ads recently. Perhaps an American Express airlines card? A solid start.

Step 2: Connect the Dots

So now what can David glean? This user entered through a landing page featuring the Samsung Galaxy S5 as well as other devices specifically chosen for this landing page because they’re the phones consumers who looked at the Galaxy S5 opted for (provided they didn’t buy the S5).

Sabrina is onto segmenting. Robert saw the travel-influenced landing page but continued to click around. What catches his eye? An offer of $100 back from the Blue Cash Everyday Card? Something else? He’s now more than “the traveler.” For Robert, it seems, it’s all about cash back. With these newly acquired data points, American Express can refine its personification and assign clearer traits.

Step 3: Put the Data to Work

Back to Verizon—and back to the notion of solid value propositions for this anonymous shopper. At this point, the landing page would also call out device bundles (think chargers and cases at a discount) to satisfy this consumer’s presumed need for value and “extras.” That’s the hypothesis David’s cooked up based on the “historical”—moments old, in this case—data as well as the user’s real-time movements through the site. He’s cultivated a series of powerful “who/what/where” observations and loose personas that he uses to effectively target anonymous users—in this case it’s the notion that visitors from discount affiliate sites should be shown discounted devices. Why? Because the data shows they convert at higher rates when presented with those optimized landing pages. Cue the “more everything plan with edge,” which delivers a lower incremental cost for price-sensitive shoppers. A banner for $100 off smartphones locks him in and he’s ready to take action.

Over at Team AmEx, Sabrina is confident Robert is hooked on the cash back opportunities and the Blue Card Everyday seems like the front runner as he scopes out the information and info page. An updated landing page featuring cash back cards is served up—and Robert applies.

Postmortem: Now What?

Final verdict: Success! Not only did the customer convert—twice!—but “Robert” filled in the blanks on who he is and what he wants. Using those actionable metrics, known demographics, and third-party data that can be culled and connected, both Verizon and American Express got pretty clear pictures of this now-engaged consumer.

Verizon’s “special sauce” boils down to a culture tied to continuous improvement, a deep commitment to personalization as a competitive advantage, a relationship-building mega tool, and the ability to leverage partnerships within technology and data that enables the company to better serve its consumers and prospects. Another must? Delivering OS-based experience. Verizon has seen double-digit increases in conversion from this alone.

American Express, similarly, has recognized double-digit increases in approved conversion rates as well. Not to be outdone, the team has racked up a number of industry honors and accolades including the gold in Forrester’s US Credit Card Online Sales Rankings in 2013 and the 2013 Internet Advertising Competition Award for Outstanding Achievement. Not too shabby.

What did I take away from this hands-on challenge? Three key tactics for tackling anonymous visitors: watch for signals, connect the dots, and put the data to work. Wherever you’re coming from, by following these steps you’ll land in the same place: a conversion, an alignment, and a deep, meaningful loyalty and advocacy fueled by spot-on relevance and right time, right-place connectivity. And that’s the kind of emotionally charged relationship that drives ongoing brand loyalty and advocacy.

My other takeaway? Face it: there’s no such thing as an anonymous user, at least not anymore. Time to get to personalizing, whether your relationships spans 10 years or 10 seconds.

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