6 Types of Online Customer Identifiers

Just as information is easier to access on the web than it is to find in a book, customer data is much easier to track and analyze when it takes place online than when it does in-store.  This explains why most retailers will focus on identifying online customers more than offline customers; it is easy, and the plans are already in place.  We argue that both types of customers provide vital information, and because online customers can become offline customers and vice-versa, both need to be known.  Ecommerce and online customer identification should go hand-in-hand with every retail because the data is always there.  But, before a sale takes place, how does a retailer know what shoppers are looking at and thinking of buying?

Cookie IDs

What it means:  Cookies are text files stored in a browser that tracks one’s movements within a site and remembers selections one made (such as a login or preferences) from previous visits.

Pros:  The retailer can be given data about how customers move around on their website.  This is comparable to seeing what aisles are crowded or what displays are not being seen in a store.

Cons:  Little information about the actual user can be relayed to the owner of the site.  Also, multiple people can be using a certain device in a day, and a single person can use multiple devices making it hard to identify a single user.

Analysis:  At its starting level, tracking a website’s cookies is relatively low-cost for a retailer who is just beginning to identify their customers in the not-so-obvious ways.  There are easy applications to use that can make this is simple way to remarket an item to a potential customer.  This just skims the surface of customer identification but is a good start.

Social IDs

What it meansSocial IDs can be used to find a customer’s social media accounts when they visit a website in order to retarget these people later.  Someone who is signed into Facebook, Twitter, or other social media accounts can provide the retailer with the information of what websites they visited and products they looked at.

Pros:  This helps to provide relevant content which can be found across devices, so moving from a laptop to a tablet to a phone would not be a problem since one is given the same experience.

Cons:   While Facebook and Twitter have the retargeting information, the retailer is not given the Facebook and Twitter information.  This method does not give the retailer account information or personal data that is posted on these social media accounts.

Analysis:  This method helps a retailer to have their customers get to know their brand, but not so much the other way around.  However, because social media has a powerful influence, it is great to have retargeting efforts here.

Digital Fingerprinting

What it means:  As phrased by Forbes Magazine, “This technique allows a web site to look at the characteristics of a computer such as what plugins and software you have installed, the size of the screen, the time zone, fonts and other features of any particular machine. These form a unique signature just like random skin patterns on a finger.”

Pros:  This is an extremely effective way to identify customers and score their behaviors. Even if multiple people use a device, they can guess which user it is based on these characteristics.  The retailer learns of common behaviors to understand and identify their customers which is arguably more important than knowing an address or phone number.

Cons:  While this is not illegal, most customers do not want to feel tracked by information they did not realize they were giving.  As a result, companies who follow one’s digital fingerprint do not talk about how they do so.

Analysis:  Only a large retailer with the resources to spend and the desire to create a completely personalized experience should take this approach on as a company would receive large amounts of data, and the process of capturing this and analyzing requires high costs and time spent.

Mobile App

What it means:  Oftentimes for a retailer, a mobile app is associated with a loyalty program which typically prompts a customer to provide personal information and/or login with their social media accounts.

Pros:  Downloading a mobile application is a very transparent way for a retailer to capture some customer information.  This can provide a wealth of data on customer identification for the retailer, and it is more clear to the user that they are willingly providing this information.  The owner can track similar information that they do on a website with a cookie ID, but they may also have a clearer purchase history and behavior characteristics.

Cons:  The majority of smartphone owners use the same five applications, so it is often difficult for  a retailer to get potentials customers to download the app and find it useful.  An effective mobile app will require development costs to create and marketing costs to promote.

Analysis:  The customers that are identified provide quality data, but the retailer must incentivize regular use to make it effective.

Email Sign-up

What it means:  We mentioned previously how valuable an email address can be to a retailer, and the most simplified way of identifying this is by merely asking.  Having an newsletter/email sign-up on a web page is a basic opt-in way for customers to provide their information.

Pros:  This is a more traditional online customer identification effort that customers are more comfortable and familiar with.  It is clear that one is opting-in to provide the information.

Cons:  It is what happens after the sign-up that may make this a difficult identification method.  People are wary of constantly receiving useless emails and not seeing content that they would like.  Therefore, many customers will ignore a prompt to put their email in.

Analysis:  In order to keep the usefulness of this method, a retailer needs to be smart about what they do after.   This can be a cost effective form if the retailer is able to show that their email will be put to go use.


What it means:  An online survey would be the most comprehensive way of simply asking customers for things the retailer wants to know.  The questions can range from what is your email to  what is your age to how was your experience on this website.

Pros:  Similar to a newsletter sign-up, this is an easy way to show to one’s customers that they want the information to be clearly opt-in.  When the survey is filled out correctly, the retailer can learn exactly the information they want to know.

Cons:  When a website emphasizes its survey a bit too heavily, the retailer runs the risk of annoying their customers.  Some retailers answer to this is to offer an incentive such as a coupon at the end of the survey.  However, customers often rush through and not bother to answer correctly just to get the prize in the end.

Analysis:  With any customer identification technique, quality is just as important as quantity and should be weighed when deciding how to approach this.  Similar to an email sign-up, the retailer has to find a way to get past initial skepticism.

Each technique varies on scales of effectiveness, cost, and customer perception.  Deciding which approach(es) to take depends on the size of the retailer and the digital experiences that they want to give their customers.   Additionally, this data is only useful with proper analysis and being willing to implement any changes made according to any findings.  To make the best use of these efforts, they should be integrated with other systems to create an omnichannel experience.  Therefore, customers identified through online techniques would not be separate from those found offline.