If you want your customers to stick around, get a little personal.

Susan SolovicA friend was watching the local news about a week after Black Friday and they showed a long line of customers waiting to get into a nearby Toys "R" Us.

"Someone needs to tell them about the internet," she quipped.

Well, a lot of shoppers do know about the internet and digital-first brands are leading the way. The best evidence might be in the fact that Amazon captured 31 percent of online sales over the recent Cyber Weekend, according to Slice Intelligence. The distant second-place finisher, brick-and-mortar-first Best Buy, tallied only 7.4 percent of sales.

There are a variety of reasons an increasing number of shoppers prefer to buy online, and digital-first brands will leave traditional retailers in their cyberdust if the owners and managers of these traditional stores fail to compete well online.

One of the most important areas in which to compete is personalization. However, you need to understand how broadly personal contact--fundamental to many aspects of personalization--is interpreted today.

For example, many of us feel that we have personal relationships with people online even though we may seldom, if ever, actually interact with them face-to-face. We keep personal dialogues going with friends and family members via short but frequent text messages instead of in-person conversations or even telephone calls.

Traditional retailers can also use several of the personalization that are the strength of many digital-first brands. Social media marketing is at the top of the list. For example, Jennifer Zucccarini, the Victoria's Secret alumnae who founded the digital-first lingerie brand Fleur Du Mal, had a social media presence even before her company had a website.

Dialogue through social media keeps your business top of mind, which promotes patronage. Then, if your products and services meet or exceed expectations, you have the opportunity to build brand loyalty. Now let's break this down.

Social media dialogue

The first step toward establishing relevant and fruitful social media dialogue with your customers and prospects is to find the right social media platforms to engage them. In other words, where do they hang out? Another element of this revolves around the nature of your business: Would an image or video orientation in the social media be best for your business?

Facebook is the "middle-of-the-road" platform that can do text, images, and video well, but if you appeal to a younger demographic, it may not be the best social media niche. However, if you appeal to a wide range of ages, you'll certainly find them on Facebook. It's likely that you'll want to have a strong presence on more than one social media platform. Fortunately, with apps like Hootsuite, Buffer, and others, keeping multiple channels loaded up with good content isn't difficult.

Here's a tip: Spend time mastering the analytics already built into the social media platforms you use. Be aware that these sites often add features and insights. For example, Twitter allows you to download engagement data in a spreadsheet format. Keep this up over time and you'll really understand what works and what doesn't.

Customer experience

Personalization and the customer experience are attached at the hip. When you understand who your customers are, including their likes and dislikes, you can create a customer experience that is the best fit.

Amazon is the leading example of a digital-first retailer. The products it puts in front of your eyes when you go to the site are personalized via your browsing and buying history. And hey, do you want a reminder to buy laundry detergent once a month? Or do you want Amazon to place that order for you so you'll never run out? You can't get much more up personalized than that.

Giving your online shopper options is an important part of the personalized experience. For example, some customers prefer answering their own questions while others want an immediate answer from the company. Don't try to force your round-peg customers into a square-peg frequently asked questions (FAQ) page. It's pretty easy to give them options so they can self-customize their customer service. These include:

  • FAQ pages
  • Customer forums
  • Online chat
  • 800 numbers
  • Robo (artificial intelligence) systems

Data, loyalty, and personalization

Each of these techniques and systems can help you collect granular information about specific customers and prospects. Such data can help you make your internet presence even more personal. But, there's one more major way to get the information you need to up your personalization game: a loyalty program.

Beyond getting your customers to buy from you more over the course of a year, your loyalty program is a way to determine what your customers want and what motivates them to buy. Gather the information you need to help you steer your offers to better match customer desires.

For example, if you send email newsletters or sale notices, don't send everything to everyone. Segment your list based on what you've learned via your loyalty program and perhaps even social media interactions, so you can personalize your email communications. Customers who are always buying small sizes would be extremely interested when a clothing retailer has some overstock in those sizes, while the news wouldn't be very meaningful to other customers.

When you do these things to create a unique, personal experience for each of your customers, you are building a relationship that will stand the test of time.

Get more tips from small business expert Susan Solovic today!