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Progressive profiling: A better way to collect customer data

Want to understand your audience? You need to play the long game. To lead with consent, compliance, and trust, learn about customers throughout their journey with progressive profiling.

Ever feel like making great friends is a full-time job? 

That might be because, well, it is. One study found that it takes 40 to 60 hours to form a “casual friendship” and a whopping 200 hours to become best friends with someone. 

Interpersonal relationships take effort, energy, and a ton of time—and relationships between brands and their audiences don’t happen overnight, either. 

In the past, brands relied on third-party cookies as a shortcut to capture audience data, but these methods won’t cut it going forward. You also can’t learn everything you want to know about your customers through just one form—you need to gather information over time. That’s where progressive profiling comes in.

Michael Schmidt, Senior Product Manager at Arc XP, shared his customer research expertise with us for a dive into the world of progressive profiling—what it is, the right (and wrong) way to do it, and what it takes to start a strategy from scratch.

Progressive profiling: Get to know your customers little by little

Progressive profiling is the practice of gradually collecting information and preferences from an audience while being transparent about how their data will be used. ”

“Small portions of information collected at the right time across the customer journey help us build a more accurate and complete user profile in a way that respects compliance and doesn't feel creepy,” Michael explains. 

Forms that ask for tons of information at once offer a poor user experience—and garner fewer responses, our research finds. Progressive profiling solves this problem by collecting customer data slowly across many interactions instead of just one. Customers don’t feel overwhelmed, and brands benefit in three key ways:

  1. Data straight from the source. Companies don’t have to infer meaning or jump to conclusions like they would with other data collection methods.

  2. Reduced friction along the customer journey. Instead of distracting audiences from their decision to convert by asking them for data, brands give customers multiple chances to provide information that can improve their own experiences.

  3. Better personalization and targeting. How? By gathering audience preferences directly from your customers.

For brands in every industry, progressive profiling should be a priority. A 2022 Gartner survey found that 71% of B2C and 86% of B2B customers expect companies to be well-informed about their personal information during every interaction. Both B2C and B2B brands need to collect data over time to shape better and more customized experiences. 

As data collection moves away from methods like third-party cookies, marketers need to rely more heavily on trust-based data collection—namely, zero- and first-party data. According to Michael, these data types go hand-in-hand with progressive profiling. 

“Progressive profiling collects the data that you activate to meet the needs of your audience,” he explains. “Zero-party data is the information your audience shared during the collection process.” This data is packed with details—preferences, insights, and even in-depth opinions that companies can act on right away. That’s progressive profiling’s superpower.

How to avoid the pitfalls of progressive profiling

Progressive profiling isn’t a silver bullet, though—and there’s definitely a wrong way to do it. Michael shares a few examples of how not to conduct progressive profiling and the better way to collect data instead. 

Under pressure to generate pipeline at all costs, marketers may cut data collection corners, from not sharing how data is used, to trying to skirt privacy regulations.

But Michael says that if they’re not starting with consent or transparency, it’s time to rethink their strategy. “The best brands in the world understand that there is a competitive advantage when they prioritize privacy and trust with their audience.”

By design, progressive profiling is a consent-based, transparent way to collect data. The more brands share about why they’re collecting data and how it'll improve customer experiences, the more customers will trust them, and the more data they’ll be willing to share.

Mistake #2: Asking for more data than you can handle

Marketers who think every interaction with their customers might be their only chance to gain information rush to collect as much data as possible. But urgency distracts brands from focusing on their audience’s needs and leads them to ask for more data than they can use.

“Effective progressive profiling focuses on the most important data you need to be successful at serving the needs of your audience,” Michael says. “Aim for the highest quality data possible without getting in the way of your user journeys.” 

Mistake #3: Detracting from the customer experience with ads

Ad pop-ups. Autoplay videos. Chatbot pings. No one likes those overcrowded web pages where every pixel seems to be vying for their attention. While many brands rely on ad revenue, these experiences frustrate customers immensely. 

For companies trying to collect data through progressive profiling, an annoying user experience with countless windows and modals firing prevents them from getting the information they want.

“Your customer wants you to get out of the way in helping them get where they intend to go,” Michael adds. Work with your website teams to limit poor ad experiences and instead implement progressive profiling motions. Read on to discover those.

Your progressive profiling crash course

Ready to dive headfirst into progressive profiling? Get started with Michael’s steps and tactics. 

Step 1: Nail the timing

Timing is everything, so ace this first.

The key to effective progressive profiling is to trigger forms and questions at the right moments—but not during important conversion milestones. Said differently, don't try to gather data if it could interfere with someone’s decision to hop on a sales call or make a purchase.

Keep pacing in mind, too. When asking someone questions for the first time, don’t overwhelm them. Instead, space questions out evenly for a more positive experience—ask a few questions, wait, then trigger a few more.

If you find yourself fighting the urge to ask everything at once, begin with the most important questions. Start broad, then move to detailed questions later. This approach will drive better responses and improve the audience experience.

Step 2: Refine the process

Once you’ve got timing down, it’s time to select your actual data collection techniques. Michael says that experimentation is crucial here. Testing lets you explore new data collection tactics and tells your team what works and what doesn’t.

For instance, maybe you want to know if a survey or quiz will better engage someone who’s just learning about your brand. Start with a solid testing platform, which lets you set aside a segment of your traffic and experiment with different data collection variations to find out which approach is more effective.

Here are some more progressive profiling essentials:

  • Partner with your copywriting team. The words you use are as important as the questions themselves. “When you invest in great copywriting, your results are much more likely to be successful,” Michael says.

  • Steer clear of boring questions. Even on your initial consent forms, avoid clunky and mechanical questions—instead, be clear and conversational. As we often say around here, how you ask matters.

  • Give a lot of value for a little data. Your audience’s time and information are valuable. Want them to tell you about their preferences? Plan to overdeliver value that they actually want.

  • Talk like a local. If you serve multiple languages or countries, design your profiling forms to account for localization. Make sure your phrasing won’t get lost in translation, and remember that questions might take up more space in other languages.

  • Design with the audience in mind. Are you using images and other assets in your profiling forms? Make sure these elements are relevant and authentic to your audience.

  • Don’t get greedy. Michael’s said it before, and he’s saying it again—resist the urge to ask for too much too quickly. “Plan out where and how you can begin to ask for more gradually over time,” he says.

The good news about progressive profiling? There are very few limits to the channels you can use along the customer journey. “It’s not like, ‘I can only do this on my site’ or ‘I can only do this on my app,’” Michael explains. Pointing to text messages and in-person events are great channels for data collection. “There’s a whole lot of opportunity well beyond just your primary digital property for moments of progressive profiling.”

Step 3: Use data to personalize

Once you’ve started collecting data across the customer journey, it’s time to build personalized campaigns and initiatives using that data. “When our audience tells us their preferences, we have so many opportunities to serve their needs in new, fun, and unexpected ways,” Michael explains.

In the B2C world, in-depth customer data might power one-click checkout because a shopper already shared their favorite color, preferred size, and shipping details at the start of their buying journey. Progressive profiling could also help content creators offer more compelling recommendations based on an individual’s past content consumption. 

Customer data transforms the B2B buying journey, too. At each deal stage, marketers can use data to interact more thoughtfully based on prospects’ needs by:

  • Giving them the right guides and videos to answer the questions they have right now. 

  • Automating workflows to share events and webinars with those who’d be most interested. 

  • Providing sales reps with in-depth information before a demo or discovery call.

Michael sums it up this way: “Progressive profiling enables you to pick the right moment during the process to field the most important insights to help your team succeed.”

Compliance: What’s your data’s expiration date?

Progressive profiling is one of the most user-focused and consent-based ways to collect data. But marketers still need to understand data privacy regulations to stay compliant, avoid fines, and maintain audience trust. Michael offers these four best practices for progressive profiling compliance. 

1. Know your regulations

Data compliance varies by industry and region—like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the healthcare industry’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Personal data regulations even vary among U.S. states. 

These requirements all have something to say about how long companies can keep data and how they can store it, so they play an important role in the gradual data collection of progressive profiling. Know which regulations apply to you, and manage your database accordingly.

2. Lean on your teams

Regulations aren’t always straightforward, so Michael advises working closely with your privacy and legal teams when building compliance into your data collection strategy. 

For instance, GDPR dictates that companies need to remove data “when it’s no longer needed.” But that leaves room for interpretation. Your privacy team can help you define what “no longer needing data” means for your business, and from there, your data team can help you build processes for using and disposing of data in a compliant way. To add an overarching layer of protection, your legal counsel can ensure you’re aware of which regulatory requirements apply to your company and customers. 

3. Don’t over-collect data

As you can imagine, overcollection of data is a one-way ticket to non-compliance. Focus on collecting the data you need, and know the numbers on how, when, and why you use your data. No matter what regulations you’re subject to, Michael says that a good rule of thumb is to aim to store data for the shortest time frame possible.

“If you can provide metrics on what data has been activated versus what’s sitting there unused, that gives you metrics on what are good candidates to purge and remove,” Michael explains. The more data you have, the more difficult it is to manage that data at scale. Gather what you need, use it strategically, and then get rid of it—that’s how you stay compliant. 

Typeform is your partner in keeping data safe and secure 

At Typeform, we’re as serious about keeping your data safe as you are about understanding your audience. 

We keep a close eye on international regulations and standards to ensure that the data you collect in every typeform is secure and protected. Plus, we keep our security and privacy policies readily accessible for your reference at any time. That way, you can focus your time and energy on building beautiful forms, meeting customers at key moments, and activating the data that matters.

Need a progressive profiling partner? Typeform has you covered. With user-friendly forms in a wide range of formats, you can collect user data little by little at every step of your audience’s journey. 

With every form, you and your customers will be one step closer to becoming best friends. Try it yourself today

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