Q&A With Omniture’s Ennis on Site Optimization

Web analytics giant Omniture has 4,400 customers that, taken together, represent roughly 30 percent of the world’s online ad spending. Last year the company’s servers recorded 2.7 trillion individual interactions, each of which represents a grain of knowledge about the Internet’s preferences and behaviors.

At the company’s user summit this week in Salt Lake City, Omniture unveiled a variety of enhancements to its service that open it up to external tools and developers. For example, marketers can share visitor activity with advertising networks, e-mail marketing, video delivery and visitor surveys. Or they can test different content to see what increases visitor engagement. Or adjust hundreds of search terms across several search companies to maximize purchases.

In its quest to help customers build the optimal online experience, Omniture last year acquired two firms whose technologies can not only test different content, keywords and offers, but can automatically modify a web site based on what drives more traffic, better engagement, or increased purchases.

Fans of this autonomic site optimization say it will free marketers to focus on what they do best: creative marketing. But critics warn that pandering to visitor whims leads to lowest-common-denominator content and countless computer-optimized sites that resemble one another.

We sat down with Gail Ennis, Omniture’s chief marketing officer, to get her take.

GigaOM: Autonomic analytics is a major topic. Are customers ready for sites that optimize themselves?

Gail Ennis: Some customers say, ‘I don’t want the system to do it. I want to control it.’ And we love them to do that. Particularly as it gets to the keyword spend, it’s so complicated to try to optimize keyword rules so people are much more reluctant to say, ‘I’m going to let an algorithm take that over for me.’ But some companies, and some marketers within companies, just get it right away: ‘We’re going to throw everything into that autoserve, let the creative serve up, let the algorithms build.’ [At this year’s user conference, Omniture CEO Josh James in his remarks] opened up with this very fact, that algorithmic marketing is so ripe for automation right now.

GO: You’ve focused a lot on industry verticals at this show. Which vertical is the least likely to embrace automation?

Ennis: Funny enough, retailers are a little bit more resistant. They have people there whose job it is to figure out promotion and merchandising, and a lot of other verticals don’t have that. They have the data and could automate it. I’m not saying this is true for every retailer, but we’ve seen it where they go, ‘Well, no, we have people who do that sort of thing.’

It makes me think about which industries are getting closer to ‘What does the customer really want?’ rather than ‘What do I want to give them?’ Those companies are going to get to great user customer experience first and be more competitive in the marketplace.

GO: On the other hand, consumers tend to go for the lowest common denominator. If you took 10 retailers and let autonomics do everything it could to choose the offer, the pricing, the keywords — wouldn’t you wind up with 10 stores that were identical?

Ennis: You might. That’s where the balance is. What should I automate? If I automate that, would it free me up to focus more about my strategy and my brand? I don’t think it’s going to be 100 percent automated.

This happens to me all the time as a CMO. People say, ‘Look at this ad that’s pulling!’ and I say, ‘But it’s so off-brand! It’s so not us!’ You get into this dilemma of ‘That’s what people want’ and ‘That’s not the image we want to portray.’ There are some things we automate 100 percent, like awareness. Others, like our webinars, are probably different from an ad banner or other awareness-type branding.

Ultimately, though, Ennis sees the business of winning over customers as a process, not a one-time fix to content. “It’s not about ‘Touch me once,'” she said, “it’s about ‘How do you touch me in the right portfolio of ways to convert me through my cycle?'”