Online stores need to strive for more than one-sided transactions, creating immersive sites that engage customers in conversations about what’s meaningful to them. This is my second in a series of posts on the principles behind experience-driven commerce, or e-commerce integrated with relevant and engaging content.

The first pillar—interactivity—is about the methods and media you use to engage visitors. Elements of interactivity include responsive design, video and graphics, social media campaigns, and conversation-sparking in blogs and forums. The goal of interactivity is to form reciprocal relationships with customers and gain opportunities to listen to their needs and desires.

These relationships form the basis of the second pillar of experience-driven commerce: insight. The information and data you derive from customer behavior and interactions gives you deeper perception and understanding of your audience, allowing you to continually enhance customer experiences in an ever-evolving cycle.

Can We Really Rely on Data?

Gathering customer insight can be a complex, multistep process that requires intimidating technology investments. It is tempting to focus on measuring only the last click-to-purchase, and ignore the leading indicators that could foster loyalty. But I suspect this temptation arises from less-than-stellar experiences with the old methods of gathering customer insight.

In the past, companies had two options: send customers a survey and rely on the often dismal return rates for data, or conduct focus groups and interviews with a very limited population. Both forms of data are useful to a point, but they are also basically flawed. Humans have notoriously inaccurate memories, and are very susceptible to suggestion. For example, after making a major purchase, your memory might skew toward positive recollections of the transaction and feelings of satisfaction with the product. Why? To protect yourself from buyer’s remorse and justify the expense. And members of focus groups will be swayed by other members, interviewers, their environment, that day’s commute, what they had for breakfast, and . . . . You get the picture.

Today’s digital analytics tools can capture customers’ feelings and actions in the moment, and help keep insights free of bias. With the right data, you can see what paths customers are taking and what they do immediately after interacting with content, or while they interact.

What’s the Difference between Data and Insight?

Think of data as the raw stuff—the molecules. The molecules of data come together to give form to customer insight, or the complex, three-dimensional view of your customers. Insight is your understanding of what drives individuals to visit and engage your  brand on multiple channels. What is resonating with your visitors? What paths are they taking, and what compels them to make a purchase, or visit you again? What do they think of your brand and what do they find lacking? What are their motivations, desires, beliefs, preferences, problems, locations, habits, and favorite methods of communication?

Behavioral economist Ravi Dhar has this to say about data and insight:

“To me, an insight is really a powerful discovery about the underlying motivations that drive people’s actions. It’s a discovery process; it’s not something that people can necessarily articulate. It can come through observation, it can come through trends, but it’s not the data. It’s the discovery about motivation that comes from the data. An insight is a motivation that drives some kind of action.”

Customer insight includes all the details that allow us to personalize experiences and speak directly to unique target segments. It’s the source material for the story you will weave around your products, and the core messaging of your brand. Customer insight acknowledges that strong narratives are still at the core of great digital experiences, and seeks to craft narratives that are delightful, relevant, and intimately reflect the individual’s ideals and aspirations.

How to Gain Customer Insight

Testing reveals which design and experience choices convert better, but it can’t explain why. You must take extra steps to gain that insight. This might sound mysterious, but there are some simple ways forward.

Asking customers for in-the-moment feedback is one way to learn why they came to your site, if they were able to accomplish what they wanted, what they liked and didn’t like about your site experience, and why they either abandoned their cart or completed a purchase. The answers to these questions then feed back into conversion optimization techniques: if you learn that 30 percent of visitors are abandoning their carts because they felt too much information was required of them, you can reevaluate the forms and fields on your checkout pages.

Reading and analyzing reviews left by customers is another simple yet valuable method for gaining insight. What feelings are customers frequently expressing, and what experiences do they describe? What pleases them enough to leave a five-star review, and what bothers them enough to lambast you?

How Pivotal Insights Become Amazing Brand Strategies

Helen Edwards cites Pampers as a great guiding example of worthwhile insight. The company’s old brand message centered on diapers that stay leak-free even when little ones squirm and play. The assumed knowledge was that leak-free was every parent’s priority. Then a new data-gathering mission led to this new insight: parents aren’t thinking about leaks, they’re thinking about sleep—a precious gift they’d do anything to get more of. So Pampers shifted its message and strategy, and began delivering bedtime diapers with extra dry layers so babies don’t wake up from wetness.

Simon James of RAPP recalls how “the success of the Wii took many industry observers by surprise, selling over 10 million units in 2008”—more than twice the sales of the Xbox 360. Nintendo predicted what others didn’t by carefully researching and observing gaming trends. The company’s critical insight was that gaming was “moving from the bedroom to the living room and the [audience was widening] beyond 15–34 year old males.” They responded by branding themselves as a family system, with games targeted to multiple age ranges that encourage a more communal playing strategy.

Identify Your Most Pivotal Customer Insights

Use Edwards’ definition of consumer insight to filter the true insights from the mere findings:

“Consumer insight: a revelatory breakthrough in your understanding of people’s lives that directs you to new ways in which to serve your customers better.”

The key part of that definition is “serve your customers better.” If a new understanding of your customers can contribute to a more relevant and helpful product, service, or experience for your customers, it’s worth focusing on.

Revelatory breakthroughs don’t just happen. You can arrive at them by developing a deep understanding of your customers, choosing the most relevant data points, and rigorously testing experience-related variables. Use questions and focus groups to identify the unique values of each customer segment. Follow up with tests to optimize the aspects of your digital experiences that most powerfully impact decisions.

Start with an open mind and don’t make assumptions about your customers’ needs and preferences. Experience-driven commerce requires you to think harder and unearth your audience’s core motivations. If you make customer insight one of your key pursuits every step of the process, you will be able to move beyond baiting consumers with coupons and begin nurturing loyalty.