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 Amer​i​canEx​press​.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.