We Accidentally (on Purpose) Sent You …

American Express (Amex) is a premium brand I’ve long admired. When they issued their first paper credit card in 1959, its annual fee was $6 — $1 higher than Diners Club (the industry leader), carefully positioning Amex as a premium product.

American Express LogoAmerican Express (Amex) is a premium brand I’ve long admired. When they issued their first paper credit card in 1959, its annual fee was $6 — $1 higher than Diners Club (the industry leader), carefully positioning itself as a premium product.

In 1980, I became a proud Amex cardholder and when they started co-branding with Delta Airlines, I quickly converted my card, collecting enough mileage points over the years to travel first class, with my entire family, to several different continents.

In early December, I called Amex to dispute a charge on my card (I should note that every phone interaction with Amex has been superior). As the call was wrapping up, the customer service rep inquired about another Amex card I carried but rarely used, and suggested that I might be more interested in a new and different product. The sales spiel included a notation that I’d get double miles for certain purchases. Now that I have kids in college with travel requirements, that was music to my ears. Sign me up!

The rep was quite clear that there was no annual fee with this new card, so I was surprised when a $95 charge appeared on my next statement. I added a call into Amex to my “to do” list, and promptly forgot about it the next day.

Yesterday, however, I received a letter from Amex apologizing for sending me the wrong card. They noted that they had already credited my account for the first year’s fee, but if I wanted to switch to the card originally promised, all I needed to do was contact them.

Of course, now I wanted to know the difference between the card I got and the card I was supposed to get, so I Googled it. And discovered that the card they sent me was even superior in mileage point collection. Instead of two-times the miles, in some instances I was getting three to four-and-a-half-times. Sorry Amex, but you won’t be able to rip this card from my fingers!

With all the automation of systems, call centers, fulfillment centers, etc. encompassing Amex operations, I started to think, “How could Amex make a mistake like this?” And, upon further reflection, perhaps it wasn’t an error, but a deliberate marketing strategy.

Sell the consumer a fee-free card, ship the wrong card, notify the consumer of the error after the fact, waive the fee and, upon feeling the benefits of those extra points building in the account, convert non-payers to payers. Is this a brilliant bait and switch move?

Thanks for the new card, Amex. And thanks for your (supposed) mistake. You’ll be enjoying my $95 next year, but in the meantime, I’ll be booking myself another (free) flight.

Credit Card Companies Are Our Role Models

Data makes the modern marketing world go round. More data, however, doesn’t automatically translate into more insights. Even with the tetrabytes of data collected each day, a lot of it remains atomized and difficult to turn into insights because of gaps between marketing and purchase information. Now credit card companies have begun to fill this void.

Data makes the modern marketing world go round. More data, however, doesn’t automatically translate into more insights. Even with the tetrabytes of data collected each day, a lot of it remains atomized and difficult to turn into insights because of gaps between marketing and purchase information. Now credit card companies have begun to fill this void.

Direct marketers have long lacked the glamor of brand marketers. There’s no show about them on AMC and they don’t lead at Cannes. But, by way of solace, direct marketers have always had numbers-cold, hard support that their advertising works.

Turns out, it can be very hard to determine which channel was pivotal when marketers pepper consumers with ads from all directions. The effect of a given advertisement, if any, gets lost. At the same time, consumers have a myriad of sales portals. A person can see an online ad while browsing her desktop at work, then buy later from home or the next day from her phone after finding it on Google-or walking down the street to a shop and buying it.

For direct marketers accustomed to a neat closed loop, this uncertainty gnaws at them. Finding a way to cleanly close the loop is a priority.

It turns out, another industry facing challenges from data and technology has been exploring ways to close the loop. Credit cards have a tremendous amount of data on purchase behavior. But, until now, they haven’t done a lot with it. In the last couple of years, however, they’ve woken up to the potential.

A few months ago, Mastercard bought Mu Sigma, a data analytics company. Although privacy concerns prevent Mastercard from offering transactional information about individuals, it can provide aggregated data about shopping behavior. Mu Sigma gives Mastercard to identify relationships between different purchases, how they relate to each other, and how they might relate to other bits of information, such as location or demographics. It’s not a large leap from there to provide aggregated information about the performance of marketing campaigns.

Of all of the credit card companies, American Express has done the most to link advertising with purchase information. The company has been a true innovator in direct response advertising on social media. Amex can track advertising on all types of platforms through to the point of purchase. A good example is a campaign using the Xbox and Halo, where game players receive rewards from advertiser partners. When players go to the partner, they automatically can redeem the rewards. It’s similar to programs that Amex has done on Foursquare, where Amex cardholders link their accounts to their check-ins and receive coupons in return. Or a program on Facebook, where cardholders sign up for special discounts. They receive the discount when they use their card-and Amex can track it all. Most recently, Amex has pioneered a program with Twitter, where users can sync their Twitter accounts with their cards, allowing them to buy products simply by tweeting a promotional hashtag.

Amex’s pioneering efforts in social marketing and Mastercard’s analytics products are early attempts linking purchase behavior with other marketing information. By doing so, they’re providing a bridge that closes the loop in today’s diffuse media world.