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Progressive profiling: a non-icky way to collect customer data

There's a way to build customer personas and give consumers personalized experiences without having to creep on their data.

By Saphia Lanier · September 21, 2021
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There's a conundrum: consumers demand personalized experiences with brands, but many are opting out of having their data collected by businesses. 

So how do you understand your audience and segment them effectively if folks aren't clicking yes on that cookie consent banner? The answer is progressive profiling, and it sounds a lot more sinister than it is.

What is progressive profiling?

For decades, the World Wide Web was like the Wild Wild West. But this time, the gold rush was for third-party cookies (i.e., customer data). It was the resource that generated billions in profits, especially for eCommerce brands. 

Unfortunately, there are always bandits in the midst. Hackers, data breaches, and unethical businesses made data privacy a concern, so much so that governments stepped in. Now, we have the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to comply with, which regulates how data is collected, stored, and managed. 

And the people are for it: nearly 70% of consumers worry about the level of data companies collect. Another 40% don't trust companies with their data. And 30% aren't willing to share their information with businesses—at all. 

So brands like yours are looking for ways to deliver relevant messages to consumers while respecting their right to control their own data. That's where progressive profiling comes in.

Progressive profiling is an approach to gathering first-party data in a privacy-compliant manner—basically, you ask customers to provide small bits of information throughout their customer journey. This allows you to create more detailed user profiles without violating GDPR. Plus, it captures even more granular data than standard data collection might, which gives better insight into consumer preferences. That means you can continue delivering highly targeted content, messaging, and experiences to customers and prospects. 

But there's a thin line between good progressive profiling and overstepping boundaries. 

If you're not careful, you can turn a good practice into an icky one. As a content writer, I frequently download reports, and recently, I shared my phone number—big mistake—with a business in exchange for their report. They proceeded to repeatedly call me from multiple numbers. Every day. For two weeks. And even left voicemails. (...It didn't work.) 

Don't be that brand. Instead, let's talk about how to use progressive profiling for good—that is, the good of your customers and your brand. 

3 ways to make data collection less icky

Third-party data is out, and first-party data is in. Since it takes two to tango, you need to start collecting data in a way your customers will feel good about. There are all sorts of ways to do this, but before we dive in, let's look at the strategy behind it all.

Progressive profiling builds customer profiles by asking questions over time. Here are the steps:

  • Attract: Capture the attention of your target customers using content marketing, social media, and paid ads. 

  • Collect: Use a form, quiz, survey, or other tool to gather small amounts of information. The goal is to ask for minimal information, so it's not overwhelming (or creepy). 

  • Modify: Take the data you collected and generalize out to create personas and segment your audience.

  • Repeat: Continue this process for each new customer.

Your progressive profiling strategy should proactively entice visitors and customers to share details—but only a little at a time. Start with a few personal questions, like a name and email address, and go from there. You'll eventually build out robust customer personas while also segmenting your audience along the way.

I interviewed several brands to learn about how they're using progressive profiling to enhance the customer experience. Here are the most popular strategies I came across.

1. Create quizzes and surveys 

Why not take the "Which celebrity are you?" quiz style and apply it to your progressive profiling strategy? This is what Chic Pursuit did to attract and collect data from its audience. Maria Juvakka, the founder, told me:

I don't think every niche can get away with offering quizzes, but it works in the fashion industry. Use topics relevant to your niche: for example, "What's your best look?" or "What year does your fashion belong to?" Not only is this collecting the necessary data—like age, gender, and email—but it's also allowing me to segment my followers. With a segmented database, it's easier to create content that's customized, which boosts my KPIs.  

Maria also surveys the customers in her database twice a year. And she's not afraid to ask for the information she needs to improve the user experience: "I straight up ask them the questions that I can no longer collect due to GDPR," she says. "I ask them when they like to browse online, how much they usually spend shopping online, and what days and times they're more likely to open emails and click on the content."

She also noted that most people aren't willing to pass along their information unless incentivized. So she teamed up with a brand who she's an affiliate with, and she offers her readers a discount with that brand upon completion of the survey. That info is also shared with the other brand—it's a win-win.

Wondering how you can apply quizzes in your industry or niche? Here are a few ideas:

  • Restaurant industry: Give a quiz on food preferences or ask guests where they want to eat next.

  • Fitness industry: Ask fitness buffs who they'd recommend for training sessions, or do like Gainful and offer to personalize their supplements. 

  • Beauty products: Create a quiz on skin types to match people with the right product. 

  • Travel industry: Offer a travel trivia game to help select visitors' next destination.

  • Retail industry: Have shoppers answer questions about their favorite styles (maybe even tie it to a decade if it's relevant to your shop). 

  • B2B industry: Offer a brand personality quiz or a quiz that matches their business with the best tools for the job.

One key thing to remember: online quizzes should be short and sweet. You don't need to ask too many questions to start building a valuable dataset—just enough to encourage users to fill out the rest of the form (and enough to give unique quiz results). 

2. Conduct one-on-one interviews with customers 

Data scraping tools can give you some insights into who your audience is and what they like, but it doesn't get you any nitty-gritty details. Like why they did or didn't choose your solution and what they think about your product or service. 

This is where one-on-one interviews prove valuable. Miranda Yan, co-founder of VinPit, told me that interviews give the best results for her business because the company is able to better understand the emotion behind the information—in addition to getting really detailed answers. Miranda also uses focus groups to gather insights. To get folks to join, she offers payments to applicants who qualify (based on certain criteria). 

If you're thinking about adding one-on-one customer interviews to your first-party data strategy, here are a few questions you should ask:

  • What is your biggest challenge with our product/service?

  • How do you feel about our company?

  • Why did you choose us over another vendor?

  • What would make you use our service again?

  • What would you change about our product/service? 

The goal is to find out what makes them buy. Home in on their pain points and decision-making patterns, so you can design marketing campaigns that help them through the buyer's journey.

3. Offer series of premium content 

Gating content isn't a new strategy. But it can be an incredible tool for progressive profiling. 

Traditionally, gated content only requires a few small pieces of information (usually name and email address) to access the content. While that's better for conversions, it doesn't give you the intel you need to understand who's downloading your resource. 

For progressive profiling, you'd have a series of downloads that a single user acquires. Each time, they divulge a little more information about themselves via dynamic forms. Here's how Kevin Bloom, Director of Marketing and Digital Marketing Consultant at Hinge, uses this strategy.

We began using progressive profiling several years ago and have enjoyed watching our inbound leads and engagement grow. Website visitors who download a piece of our premium content share with us their name, email, and industry. When they want to download a second piece of content, our forms present fields for additional info like their role and company. This allows us to keep our forms short and less intrusive. The key, however, is to provide content they find useful and relevant enough for them to volunteer their information, a little at a time, and keep coming back for more. Otherwise, data gathering would be intrusive. 

And it apparently works quite well: "About 30% of our mailable list has downloaded more than one piece of content. Our best inbound leads have gone through all four stages of our progressive profiling and most likely have attended a recent webinar."

In the meantime, you're also collecting email addresses for your mailing list, with the ability to automatically tag and segment them based on the content they downloaded.

Progressive profiling is an effective tool for getting first-party data. You get to identify users' interests and needs and deliver the personalized experiences they desire—all the while keeping their data in their control. Just make sure your offers are relevant and high-value, so sharing data with you feels like a no-brainer.

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