How COVID-19 Is Changing B2B Marketing

The global pandemic continues to affect every area of our lives and our businesses. To discuss what should be top of mind for marketers, Ruth Stevens talked with Roger McDonald, a seasoned sales and marketing executive to gather his views on what’s going on with B2B marketing and offer insights.

The global pandemic continues to affect every area of our lives and our businesses today. I reached out to my longtime colleague and friend Roger McDonald, a seasoned sales and marketing executive and thoughtful observer of things related to B2B marketing, to gather up his views on what’s going on, and how B2B marketers should be thinking.

How do you see COVID-19 changing the nature of B2B sales and marketing going forward?

I see it as another in a long line of disruptions in the buying and selling process. COVID-19 is a shock to the system. Such disruptions are fertile ground for innovation.

This one is unusual because it affects aspects of the business that marketing does not always touch. We must ask ourselves, “What is this crisis communicating to my customers and stakeholders? And what are my behaviors saying?”

This is a good time for what I call an “everything communicates” audit.

What’s that? 

Like a marketing audit, but recognizing that there is a message in everything a company does. So, you examine not just the product, or features, or messaging, or value proposition. You look at every customer touchpoint, to ensure consistency and excellence. With the pandemic, the customer will be judging you on different criteria. Is your supply chain flawless? If you’ve had a breakdown in delivery, how have you communicated that to your customers? Do your customer-facing employees practice good hygiene?

Where is there an opportunity to innovate in a crisis like this?

If you can innovate through the crisis, and show customers superior performance, it will have a lasting effect on the customer relationship. Of paramount importance is how you make them feel when they are struggling.

Much of it comes down to speed and agility, and the ability to change how you interact with existing customers. Consider this: One of my clients reorganized — in just 48 hours — the way they deliver customer service. They set up a service system combining virtual and on-site processes, which reduced service call times from nearly 2 hours to 28 minutes. More importantly, the new system addressed their customer’s desire to reduce non-essential physical contact.

How has the role of marketing changed?

The roles of both sales and marketing have been changing for a while. COVID-19 is just the latest iteration.

B2B sales was historically a matter of face to face, physical contact. The past 30 years have seen enormous change, what with building security concerns in the 1970s, and then with 9/11.

Technology accelerated the change, with databases, email, social networks, digital advertising, online RFP price bid systems, all dramatically impacting the nature of customer engagement — and increasing the importance of marketing and IT. Marketing is no longer just about advertising, brand, and leads. It is involved in every stage of the customer relationship.

So, where is this heading? 

As you see, there had already been major change in recent decades. I believe COVID-19 will drive further change. We already see upticks in virtual engagement, AI-driven programs for both lead generation and point-of-contact engagement. Will the sales person function disappear?  Or will sales people morph into project managers? No matter what, it’s easy to see sales people moving from two-to-three sales calls to more like four-to-seven productive calls a day.

Here are some other examples:

  • Benefits statements and value propositions will have new or altered components. Think supply chain security and business continuity programs.
  • In your interview with Steve Gershik, he discussed the “funnel beyond the funnel,” which he described as “the systems, processes and technologies to drive value” once a customer has moved to the buying stage. This is exactly why Covid-19 has spawned the phrase: “Retention is the new acquisition.”
  • We are now full circle back to Peter Drucker’s famous words: “Business has only two functions, marketing and innovation. These produce revenues. All others are costs.” As we know, most B2B companies still look at marketing as an expense that “might” produce revenue. Perhaps we are at a tipping point where senior management will move beyond metrics of lead generation, to nurture marketing’s evolving role as organizer of systems, IT initiatives, and sales person engagement for both acquisition and retention. I recommend  “Beyond Advertising,” which in 2016 envisioned a new role of CMO in an agile and innovative organization. Marketing will have a wider span of influence.

Any last words, Roger?

Don’t ask whether we will ever get back to normal. Innovation drives forward motion. Ramp up your virtual relationships. Grab the opportunity to change your practices, your processes and your metrics.  Instead of setting quotas around topline revenue, look at retention metrics. Change the compensation system. Develop new infrastructure. Maybe you need new leadership.

Wow, great food for thought — and action — for B2B marketers!  Thank you, Roger.

A version of this article appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

 

 

 

 

The Art of the Virtual Pitch Part 4: Sealing the Deal With Post-Pitch Engagement

Pitches aren’t usually won or lost in the room, even though that feels like the main event. Here’s what I’ve learned about making the most of the time following your pitch, which can be applied to the virtual pitch, as well.

Note: This is the last in a four-part series about navigating the unique challenges of pitching without any in-person meetings.

Pitches aren’t usually won or lost in the room, even though that feels like the main event. Here’s what I’ve learned about making the most of the time following your pitch, which can be applied to the virtual pitch, as well.

If you’ve been reading this whole series, you won’t be surprised to hear that the most important part of post-pitch engagement goes back to nurturing the relationship with the clients. Revisit Part 1 of this series, because you just can’t put too much effort into romancing the client. Being creative and thoughtful will take you far.

Work your relationships: If you got the lead or the opportunity through someone you know, keep close to them. They can give you the inside scoop as to who’s in the running, who’s doing well, and what turned the team off during the pitch process — that allows you to tailor your pitch and the way you follow up.

Go big or go home (when appropriate): For example, years ago we were pitching Cadillac just after their move to NYC. They were looking to update their image, and we came up with a great street art program to show off new Cadillac models. As part of our pitch we created a roadmap for our program in the same street art style and had handouts at the pitch. We built on that after the pitch by having street artists paint a 10’x10’ canvas of the roadmap for the Cadillac office.

Don’t Dwell on Mistakes — Fix Them

We’ve all had an “oops!” moment during a pitch, or got grilled by the client and don’t feel great about how we handled it. While it’s important to analyze these moments and improve for next time, a few goof-ups don’t spell failure for your pitch.

The post-pitch follow-up should never just be a thank you note anyway, so take it as an opportunity to round out your pitch in whatever way you want to. Address your mistakes, offer clarity on elements there were a lot of questions about, etc.

Act Like You Already Have the Business

Don’t waste any time showing the clients that you’re excited and ready to dig into the work.

For example, if the clients were super responsive to certain elements of your pitch, create an action plan to show them how that program would get off the ground. Or, say you’re doing a PR pitch and the clients mentioned targeting publication in a specific journal. Show them you’re the one to make that connection. Imagine how the client feels when you’re following up and say you talked to Tom Smith at Dream Journal and he’d be happy for you to broker an introduction.

Do what you’d do if you got the job, like setting up relevant media alerts so you don’t miss the opportunity to congratulate the clients or point out an opportunity. When clients feel confident that you are on top of the job before you even have a scope of work, it answers a lot of questions for them. You’ll have an advantage over the competition when you show that your team needs less guidance, less onboarding.

Do you feel ready to conquer the virtual pitch now? Tweet me @rumekhtiar with any questions about handling pitches in the era of all-remote work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Tactics to Stay Connected With Your Target Audience

What can you do today to help you to survive the current state of your market and thrive as it evolves? Consider these three tactics to help you maintain a strong connection with your audience.

Digital marketing — and marketing more broadly — is always about making it clear to your target audience that you can help them address the issue they need to solve. Nothing about the conditions we’re facing today changes that, though the issues your audience is facing very likely have.

So, as much as we’re all tired of hearing about our “unprecedented” times and “the new normal,” we do have to adapt our organizations to the conditions we see in our markets, or risk our own extinction.

What can you do today to help you to survive the current state of your market and thrive as it evolves? Consider these three tactics to help you maintain a strong connection with your target audience.

Trim Costs Without Negatively Affecting Your Audience

Where can you cut costs in a way that does not impact your ability to connect with your target audience? Begin by looking at what you’re doing now. For example, digital ad costs have fallen. If you can craft a message that still resonates with your prospects, you may be able to increase your impact at a lower overall cost, and certainly at a lower CPM. (Be careful, though, if your targeting relies on IP address identification. With many corporate folks working from home, their IP address will not be that of their organization unless they’re accessing the internet through a corporate VPN.)

What alternative to currently dormant channels have you shied away from testing in the past because of budget or bandwidth concerns? Virtual events rather than in-person events is the most obvious choice, but there may be other areas in your arsenal worth investigating.

Explore New Tactics for Your Sales Team to Employ

Speaking of alternatives, if your sales force has typically relied on face-to-face meetings to drive revenue, they’ll be itching for new ways to connect with potential buyers. They may be more open to new ideas than in the past; for example, creating a library of online resources.

The key here is doing the work to ensure that the resources you create align with the sales team’s needs. This makes creating a digital library a great way to get sales and marketing working together, even if they can’t be together physically. (I’m sure some of you are thinking about how that physical distance might make the process easier …)

Even better, a library like this works not only as a short-term play to get the sales team through a time of limited contact with prospects, but it also can pay benefits far down the road in the form of an expanded reach for the sales team as they become more comfortable using these tools in their sales process.

Improve Customer Experience

Don’t forget to check the possibilities already right under your nose. As difficult as it can be to connect with new prospects for many marketers at the moment, existing clients are likely far more receptive to your messaging, particularly if you focus on empathy, humanity, and being helpful.

Ask what help they need, share the struggles that your organization is going through, and make it clear that you will help them any way you can. Consider making a pre-emptive offer to clients that addresses problems you know they are facing. (See Point One above about asking what they need.) The short-term cost of any unpaid effort will pay long-term dividends in the kinds of trust and good will that lead to client retention and improved lifetime value.

Take a Break and Carry On: Adjust Your Mindset and Messaging During Coronavirus Pandemic

Timing is everything, perhaps now more than ever during this pandemic. As we watch the world around us change drastically, on a daily basis, it’s hard to know what to do. Do we ramp up advertising and customer messaging? Do we push out more offers? Do we create new discounts to keep sales coming in? If there was a crystal ball we trusted at times like these, what would it tell us to do?

Timing is everything, perhaps now more than ever during this pandemic. As we watch the world around us change drastically, on a daily basis, it’s hard to know what to do. Do we ramp up advertising and customer messaging? Do we push out more offers? Do we create new discounts to keep sales coming in? If there was a crystal ball we trusted at times like these, what would it tell us to do?

Nothing.

Yes. Do nothing different. Instead: “Carry on!”

No, I’m not in a state of denial, or naivete. Hear me out:

When everything around us seems to be in a state of chaos and uncertainty, we seek something solid to assure us that not all we know is pushing the “cancel” button, and that some parts of our lives will continue as normal.

When we see brands or businesses or organizations doing “business as usual,” or messaging positive news and actions, we find hope and relief and start to gravitate toward them. Whether they are right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. We need hope, assurance, and a little bit of our current normal, or we fall into states of despair and paralysis.

When we see the organizations or brands in our daily lives panic, we want to avoid their same dilemmas and tend to distance ourselves from them and find alternatives. Our trust in those organizations to be beacons for us during hard times and good times is forever changed.

Not only is our trust changed for those that panicked and gave up during those tough times, so too often is our loyalty.  We find alternatives and quite often those alternatives become our new normal. And when stability comes back to our lives, we stay with that new normal quite often vs. go back to those that panicked and let us down.

As long as you are able, stay the course in terms of keeping stores open and services available, while also abiding by what local and federal mandates require of you, of course. And most importantly, keep communication relevant and timely, while also avoiding overwhelming those you’re messaging. Remember, we’re all receiving a lot of information now, and it can be a lot to digest.

So, how do we “do nothing” effectively? Stay in touch.

Here are some thoughts on staying connected during uncertain times in ways that keep customers aligned with your brand, trusting your position, and ready to come back when life resumes as usual, once again.

Consider:

  • Keep communicating: If you send out weekly emails with product ideas, promotions, account statements, keep doing it. But instead of trying to sell to someone who is scared of life as they know it is over, peddle sincerity, compassion, and interesting stories.
  • Don’t make light of the situation: There is nothing funny from any angle so remain sensitive and stay real. Coors had plans to run an ad on being the best “work at home” beer, originally positioned for March Madness, but pulled it (ahead of the announcement of the tournament being canceled). While the ad was never intended to make fun of the current situation, it could have easily been taken the wrong way, if Coors had not pulled it.
  • This is not an opportunity: Don’t offer coronavirus specials, and don’t push to get in the news by giving away free toilet paper or make shift masks. Don’t use social media to increase impressions with insights about the situation unless you really have helpful information that makes a difference, and you are a credible source for the topic at hand.
  • Provide a healthy distraction: Stressful times are not prime for promoting sales, as efforts are not likely to achieve as much as they would during less uncertain times. It is, however, a great time to tell stories about your brand, your employees, your community causes, your vision. Take this time to be uplifting, again, where appropriate.

Regardless of what business you are in, take a break. Take a break from the routine of pushing sales and counting acquisitions. It’s not going to pay off and your frustration level will just elevate. Stay focused on what you can continue to have a positive effect on: relationships. Keep your brand relationships alive with positive communications, stories of hope and community, and more.

Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight Series, sheds a good light on this situation: “I like the night. Without the dark, we’d never see the stars.”

Embrace the dark. Look for the stars. And “Shine on!

 

Can Marketers ID a Budding Customer Relationship?

Many marketing departments are shifting from sales conversion to a more balanced relationship focus as their primary objective. As a result, there is increased focus on customer experience and customer loyalty.

Many marketing departments are shifting from sales conversion to a more balanced relationship focus as their primary objective. As a result, there is increased focus on customer experience and customer loyalty.

When it comes to measuring those efforts and related KPIs, however, most marketers are still thinking from a sales conversion perspective. Obviously, this is a problem, because KPIs influence most business decisions.

2 Common Oversights Preventing Proper Customer Relationship Identification

  1. Taking Credit for a Sale and Not a Relationship. Most marketers don’t take credit for the full lifetime value of their new customers. Rather, they are primarily focused on the sales conversion for each campaign. While lifetime value can be multiples larger than the initial sale for subscription type business, it can still provide a 30 to 60 percent increase in ROI for most other businesses. Alternative long-term measures, such as retention or repeat visits, are also helpful — but lack the holistic perspective of LTV. This is because they bifurcate the relationship between new business and repeat business and leave little room to measure brand affinity or experience-driven loyalty among new customers. If your marketing is attuned to relationship building, you should be targeting the right customers who will derive long-term value from your brand, and LTV allows you to take full credit for attracting the right customer. More important than getting the full credit for a new customer, however, is the change in perspective that a focus on relationship value will drive. Making lifetime value a component of your KPIs forces employees to think more about the types of customers they want and makes terms like engagement, relevance and brand affinity more than aspirational concepts.
  2. Failing to Measure the Value of Engaging Content. Many companies generate good engagement content, such as brand messaging, product info, newsletters, free apps etc. However, many do not take proper credit for it. Often, marketers treat this content as the first stage in a line of interactions leading to an eventual sales conversion, and it becomes lost in a multitouch attribution model. While sales attribution is important, it is also important to understand if the content fulfilled its immediate purpose. Assume you are an online clothier and you create a style guide to help customers understand versatile ways to wear your product. You’re tracking who downloads the guide and who shares the guide on social media, and then the information is used to segment these customers from those who are potentially less engaged. While this content did not necessarily lead to a direct sale, it did have tremendous value in conveying buying intent, brand affinity or even product preferences. Not all content is designed to drive immediate sales, but it should be designed to drive a specific set of behaviors, which should be measured and valued.

Bear with me as I pontificate for a moment. I am not a believer in over-measuring, but I do believe in purposeful measurement. I believe what you measure reflects the ambition and objective of what you plan to achieve. While not all relationship-focused activities can be easily measured, such as a caring customer interaction, in a digital world the customer’s behavioral response often can. Merely measuring the final behavior of a good relationship — repeat sales — is just too late in the experience journey and that seems to be what most companies are still doing today, despite their desire to build better relationships with their customers.

Data Athletes in Modern Organizations

Let’s look at the ideas, insights and strategies for becoming what I have termed a “Data Athlete.” This term has evolved during the many years I have been involved with training and developing exceptionally smart creative analysts. These professionals have a high aptitude and passion to solve big data challenges and possess the dexterity to leap from the intellectually engaging problems to the immediately actionable digital media plays that yield a high ROI. I have found smart analysts love this term—they enthusiastically consider it a badge of honor in making it to the major leagues, where they solve complex marketing problems and optimize campaigns.

Let’s look at the ideas, insights and strategies for becoming what I have termed a “Data Athlete.” This term has evolved during the many years I have been involved with training and developing exceptionally smart creative analysts. These professionals have a high aptitude and passion to solve big data challenges and possess the dexterity to leap from the intellectually engaging problems to the immediately actionable digital media plays that yield a high ROI. I have found smart analysts love this term—they enthusiastically consider it a badge of honor in making it to the major leagues, where they solve complex marketing problems and optimize campaigns.

I’m sharing all of these learnings with you, as organizations are under ever greater pressures to change in a world that only grows more digital, and in the process is generating more and more data at a blinding pace. Keeping up will require a shift in thinking about businesses, marketing and data—and of course its value, or lack thereof. This will require you and/or your team to become or be more of a Data Athlete to compete in an ever more digital world.

What is a Data Athlete?
Like any athlete, a Data Athlete is competitive. If you’re striving to become or to be more of a Data Athlete, competitiveness is important. Data Athletes compete with the norm—challenging it and outperforming it. They also challenge all assumptions, opinions and even the data they work with. Nothing’s too sacred not to inquire, challenge and test.

Most importantly, Data Athletes build brands by creating solutions based on the evidence and the impact. They seek to affect change based on the impact it will realistically have. They methodically create the future and its outcomes.

Data Athletes have that internal drive to solve and to accomplish. Contrast this with the kitschy T-shirts at the Google Developers Conference that say “data nerd” (disclosure, I have one myself). Data Athletes aren’t interested in tech for tech’s sake, or data for data’s sake.

Data Athletes Don’t Come From Traditional IT Structures
Traditional IT organizations may have staff entirely comfortable with data, having spent entire careers working with databases—building and maintaining infrastructure, building cubes, reports, integrating systems and data sources, and performing the necessary “care and feeding.” Until very recently however, traditional IT and marketing have organizationally been far apart. Bridging that gap may realistically take years in some organizations. The cultural differences between Athletes and Traditional IT aren’t trivial, and they are well-founded. IT has, for decades, been focused on stability, consistency, repeatability—command and control and gradual cautious change.

Data Athletes, on the other hand, will seek to fail and fail fast, test and learn. They require an environment that is not only tolerant of, but embraces the rigorous, ambitious development of multiple hypotheses informed by customer data, rapid testing of those hypotheses, and speedy implementation of those tests—quickly weeding out the ideas that don’t work through a data-driven system of meritocracy and speed. Gumming up that value creation process through a traditional IT process and “queue” stifles the innovation and positive change. Data Athletes often have engineering backgrounds—and have little patience, as they know the cost of slow and lumbering improvement, or lack thereof.

Not surprisingly, Data Athletes don’t come from traditional IT departments, even though many come from software engineering, front-end development, Web analytics and data science. They bring direct marketing logic and understand how brands are built. They enjoy marketing and they are creative—they challenge marketing that “can’t” be measured and improved.

So while the circa 2015 Data Athletes has a deep appreciation for traditional IT and the back office, they are different from traditional IT in critical dimensions. Data Athletes are typically driven to engage, communicate and connect with the end customer at scale, where traditional IT tends to serve corporate management and internal customers.

So, why is it so difficult to cultivate an environment that nourishes and rewards data athletes? Why are some large organizations with abundant operational reporting capabilities slow to address the evolving needs of the more digital, “big data” marketplace?

Let’s answer these questions and discuss how companies can move the ball downfield with the help of data athletes, our future organizational stars, and thinking about your level of fitness as a more “data athletic” organization.

Here are four major considerations in the era of the Data Athlete as a mission-critical team member:

1. Data Athletes Differentiate Quickly Between Reporting and Analytics
More than 90 percent of the analytics programs I’ve looked at, specifically in Web analytics, are little more than reporting programs. Visits, clicks, time on site, sales, etc. All good. All interesting, and all are short on actionability.

2. Actionability Is The Data Athlete’s Priority
Successful businesses have the habit of tracking progress over time. It’s often driven by the CFO’s office. All rhythms drive from those operational metrics: sales, units sold, turnover, etc. They have reports on top of reports. No small effort or expense is required to make those reports and answer questions based on them. These are good for business. They also can shape a culture, a culture of looking at the same things. A culture of reporting.

A “report-driven” culture isn’t all bad. Maintaining that continuity of reporting over time doesn’t, in itself, address new challenges, new consumer behaviors, the impact of Pinterest on your customer relationships, or the threat of a new intermediary who’s putting pressure on you and driving up your acquisition costs. These things affect those top-level, “operational” numbers driven by that reporting. By the time they really hit the reports hard enough, you’re already behind, which sets up “fire drills” and suffocates marketing strategy. The direction is oftentimes driven by opinions. More about that in a moment.

Reporting by definition is reactive, where analytics is really driving the creation of strategies to affect change.

3. HiPPOs Usually Aren’t Athletes.
This isn’t the “hippo” at least some of you were thinking of …

A HiPPO is the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” You probably know from experience how often the HiPPO in the room has an opinion—and challenging it isn’t easy. Or maybe you are the “HiPPO” in the room, at times. HiPPO-dominated organizations don’t need evidence that data provides. They don’t assess the impact of decisions with data, either.

HiPPOs often come from backgrounds where data and evidence are non-existent or primitive. Their ideas are rarely tested or proven, they are qualitative and only shoot straight from the hip.

In comparing Amazon to JCPenney, Fortune described Amazon’s perspective on HiPPOs as “leaders who are so self-assured that they need neither others’ ideas nor data to affirm the correctness of their instinctual beliefs.” HiPPOs sometimes frown on using data to inform and shape a business, labeling anything that seeks to create business model scalability through the intelligent use of customer data as “analysis paralysis.”

HiPPOs miss the fact that Data Athletes don’t just gorge themselves on data, they actually loath excessive unusable data and the overhead that comes with it.

An Athlete does not believe in data for data’s sake. They know what they need, and what they can do with it.

Instead, they see the HiPPO’s experience and knowledge as a source to shape problem definition. They validate the opportunity and problem with the right data. Without strong and accurate problem definition, it’s hard for anyone to effectively choose what data matters and what can be thrown away.

If you have these smart data athletes in your organization, don’t be a HiPPO and trample them—for when you do, you miss opportunity.

If you hire smart Data Athletes, it’s a business risk to ignore them. When you do, you’re under-leveraging and you’re not learning and growing yourself.

How Does This Help a Marketer?
First, think about your own organization, your own challenges, and evaluate if you’re dominated by HiPPOs or if you’re leveraging Athletes in your organization. It’s hard to debate if you need them anymore—you do, and you will. Partner with the Athletes in your organization, and you’ll begin the process of performing at an advanced level.

In future articles, we’ll discuss more specific strategic approaches and tactical executions that can help you execute and become more of a Data Athlete and introduce this unique type of “athleticism” to your organization.

What Can Variable Data Do for Your Direct Mail?

A direct mail piece is an effective way to reach out to your customers, putting your brand directly in their hands and engaging them with content that speaks directly to them. Variable Data Printing (VDP) allows you to increase the effectiveness of your direct mail marketing by making your printed pieces even more personal, and targeting specific segments of your customer base.

A direct mail piece is an effective way to reach out to your customers, putting your brand directly in their hands and engaging them with content that speaks directly to them. Variable Data Printing (VDP) allows you to increase the effectiveness of your direct mail marketing by making your printed pieces even more personal, and targeting specific segments of your customer base.

VDP gives your direct mail marketing new life, allowing you to carefully craft your printed pieces to speak directly to your customers. Your choice of fonts, colors, images, layout and text all affect how well your direct mail is received. A tailored piece that includes some personal details or information of specific interest will make your customers feel valued and is more likely to grab their attention.

Whether by segmenting your customers into groups and optimizing your printed pieces to appeal to each group, or by adding personalized data for each individual customer, VDP is a valuable business tool you can use to increase the return on investment from your printed campaigns.

Examples of How to Use Variable Data Printing
There are many ways you can use VDP. You could:

  • Vary your color choices, fonts and images to appeal to different demographics—for example, a college brochure might use different images for younger students and for mature students with a family.
  • Reflect demographic details such as age, profession and marital status—for example, a holiday cottage business might include information on family activities for some customers, and information on night life for others.
  • Include details such as special offers or contact details that are specific to a geographic location—for example a car dealership might include each customer’s local branch or the name of the salesman they usually deal with.
  • Use personalized QR codes or URLs for offers—for example, a grocery store chain might have their QR codes link to different offers for young single shoppers than for large families.

Planning a Variable Data Campaign
To make VDP work for you it’s important to invest time and effort in planning your campaign long before the first piece rolls off the press. To plan out your VDP, ask yourself:

  1. What Do I Want to Achieve?
    Is the point to sell a specific item or promotion, build customer loyalty, or learn new information about my customers? Have a clear idea of what you want.
  2. Who Am I Targeting?
    Think carefully about how you are going to segment your customer base. Do you want to use person-specific data such as their name and how long they’ve been doing business with your company, or are you going to group them by age, particular interests, or the amount they typically spend with you?
  3. What Do They Want?
    A good variable data campaign is one that speaks directly to the wants, needs and concerns of each customer.
  4. How Will I Measure Success?
    To know how well your variable data is working, you’ll need to track the response to your campaign. Think about whether your customers will scan a QR code, visit a link, like you on Facebook, or send you an order or feedback form—you can use all of these to measure how well your campaign is doing.
  5. Where Will I Get the Data?
    VDP is only as good as the data you put into it. Before starting your print run, check your data very carefully—a small mistake can make a bad first impression.

VDP means you can offer each of your customers a personalized and meaningful piece of direct mail that will appeal to them and make you stand out. Instead of just another letter, your business will become a valued correspondent, someone that your customers want to read and respond to, which means stronger customer relationships and better profits for you.

When Viral Marketing Goes Too Far

A couple of years ago, our local newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, ran a disturbing story about how a mortgage loan company in Phoenix had sent spam advertising messages which appeared on the screens of thousands of wireless phone customers. Not only were the messages not requested, but these customers had to pay to retrieve them.

A couple of years ago, our local newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, ran a disturbing story about how a mortgage loan company in Phoenix had sent spam advertising messages which appeared on the screens of thousands of wireless phone customers. Not only were the messages not requested, but these customers had to pay to retrieve them.

In the United States, phone numbers are allocated to wireless companies in blocks of 9,999, all beginning with the same three-digit prefix following the area code. The text messaging address for each mobile phone is derived from the phone number assigned to each customer’s handset and the wireless company’s name. This means that an advertiser can simply choose any three digit prefix in an area code and send a message to 10,000 people by changing the last four digits after the prefix

One industry analyst noted that this is just the tip of the iceberg. This type of spam is cheap and easy for advertisers to use. Wireless text messaging is widely used in the U.S.; and, while some carriers are taking precautions to protect their customers from text message advertising, so far neither the direct marketing industry nor the federal government has been able to control this form of spam. As the president of the mortgage company noted, the advertising had brought in new clients and “There still isn’t any rule against emailing.” Online, the concept of “permission marketing” is similarly tossed aside each day with the receipt of unsolicited promotional emails.

We call this indiscriminate solicitation of prospective customers one variation of the “Casanova Complex” customer acquisition model, reflective of the 18th century Italian adventurer, perhaps best known for his many female “conquests.” In the haste to bring in customers, companies can often forget to court the right customers, those who represent the best long-term revenue potential, or who won’t overtax the company’s customer service and support structure.

If offline instances of the Casanova Complex are a disease, then it is an epidemic among Internet companies. Many online retail sites have engaged in sweepstakes and other customer generation programs. Their objectives, they say, are to create “viral” promotions which create excitement for their sites and build their databases of available names both inexpensively and quickly. In one instance, a portal site which runs more than 1,000 websites featuring links to other sites signed up 50,000 registrants in a “Win Up to $4,000” game. Another sweepstakes program secured 126,000 registrants. An online travel products retailer, offering 1 million air miles to the winner, generated more than 60,000 names in 90 days, almost all of whom were new to the site.

The big issue for any of these sites is—do these promotions and schemes draw attractive customers who can then be cultivated over time through the various marketing tools available today? And, once these customers are on board, are companies doing enough of the right things to keep them? Or is this just another extrapolation of the Casanova Complex? As one site marketing executive said: “This is a great, low-cost way for us to acquire new names. The jury’s still out on how many of those new people will come back.” Companies involved in developing or using promotional tools like sweepstakes, unsolicited email, or wireless spam seem inclined, though, at least for the moment, to believe that these possibilities generally don’t apply to them.

For traditional offline companies, the Internet may be “commoditizing” their industry or undermining customer relationships. Many brick and mortar CEOs say a key corporate goal is to transition more of their offline customers to online, self-transactional usage. Why? Because an online transaction costs dramatically less than a brick-and-mortar transaction, there is less risk for service error, and the company can more effectively capture and leverage information from an online transaction, to cite a few advantages. Certainly, the transactional advantages of e-commerce are very appealing. But what about the effects on loyalty—especially for new customers?

One of the important ways both online and offline companies can discipline themselves to avoid the Casanova Complex is to apply personalization in all contact with customers, both new and established. This, at least, gives companies a better chance of establishing the basis of a value-based, viral relationship with these customers.

While it’s been estimated that more than 80 percent of e-commerce sites have customer and visitor email personalization capabilities (Opens as a PDF), less than 10 percent of the sites used personalization in follow-on marketing campaigns. For websites favoring incentive devices like sweepstakes and frontal assault “push” email programs to attract potential customers, personalized communication is the perhaps the best opportunity to demonstrate ongoing interest in customers—especially new ones.

Personalization is at the heart of the “relationship” in successful online CRM programs. Ultimately, it’s what makes any CRM effort viral.

Building Customer-Centric, Trust-Based Relationships

More than a buzzword, “being human,” especially in brand-building and leveraging customer relationships, has become a buzz-phrase or buzz-concept. But, there is little that is new or trailblazing in this idea. To understand customers, the enterprise needs to think in human, emotional terms. To make the brand or company more attractive, and have more impact on customer decision-making, there must be an emphasis on creating more perceived value and more personalization. Much of this is, culturally, operationally, and from a communications perspective, what we have been describing as “inside-out advocacy” for years.

More than a buzzword, “being human,” especially in brand-building and leveraging customer relationships, has become a buzz-phrase or buzz-concept. But, there is little that is new or trailblazing in this idea. To understand customers, the enterprise needs to think in human, emotional terms. To make the brand or company more attractive, and have more impact on customer decision-making, there must be an emphasis on creating more perceived value and more personalization. Much of this is, culturally, operationally, and from a communications perspective, what we have been describing as “inside-out advocacy” for years.

Most brands and corporations get by on transactional approaches to customer relationships. These might include customer service speed, occasional price promotions, merchandising gimmicks, new product offerings, and the like. In most instances, the customers see no brand “personality” or brand-to-brand differentiation, and their experience of the brand is one-dimensional, easily capable of replacement. Moreover, the customer has no personal investment in choosing, and staying with, one brand or supplier over another.

A key opportunity for companies to become stronger and more viable to customers is creation of branded experiences. Beyond simply selling a product or service, these “experiential brands” connect with their customers. They understand that delivering on the tangible and functional elements of value are just tablestakes, and that connecting and having an emotionally based relationship with customers is the key to leveraging loyalty and advocacy behavior.

These companies are also invariably quite disciplined. Every aspect of a company’s offering—customer service, advertising, packaging, billing, products, etc.—are all thought out for consistency. They market, and create experiences, within the branded vision. IKEA might get away with selling super-expensive furniture, but it doesn’t. Starbucks might make more money selling Pepsi, but it doesn’t. Every function that delivers experience is “closed-loop,” carefully maintaining balance between customer expectations and what is actually executed.

In his 2010 book, “Marketing 3.0: From Products to Customers to the Human Spirit,” noted marketing scholar Philip Kotler recognized that the new model for organizations was to treat customers not as mere consumers, but as the complex, multi-dimensional human beings they are. Customers, in turn, have been choosing companies and products that satisfy deeper needs for participation, creativity, community and idealism.

This sea change is why, according to Kotler, the future of marketing lies in creating products, services and company cultures that inspire, include and reflect the values of target customers. It also meant that every transaction and touchpoint interaction, and the long-term relationship, needed to carry the organization’s unique stamp, a reflection of the perceived value represented to the customer.

Kotler picked up a theme that was articulated in the 2007 book, “Firms of Endearment.” Authors Jagdish N. Sheth, Rajendra S. Sisodia and David B. Wolfe called such organizations “humanistic” companies, i.e. those which seek to maximize their value to each group of stakeholders, not just to shareholders. As they state, right up front (Chapter 1, Page 4):

“What we call a humanistic company is run in such a way that its stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, business partners, society, and many investors—develop an emotional connection with it, an affectionate regard not unlike the way many people feel about their favorite sports teams. Humanistic companies—or firms of endearment (FoEs)—seek to maximize their value to society as a whole, not just to their shareholders. They are the ultimate value creators: They create emotional value, experiential value, social value, and, of course, financial value. People who interact with such companies feel safe, secure, and pleased in their dealings. They enjoy working with or for the company, buying from it, investing in it, and having it as a neighbor.”

For these authors, a truly great company is one that makes the world a better place because it exists. It’s as simple as that. In the book, they have identified about 30 companies, from multiple industries, that met their criteria. They included CarMax, BMW, Costco, Harley-Davidson, IKEA, JetBlue, Johnson & Johnson, New Balance, Patagonia, Timberland, Trader Joe’s, UPS, Wegmans and Southwest Airlines. Had the book been written a bit later, it’s likely that Zappos would have made their list, as well.

The authors compared financial performance of their selections with the 11 public companies identified by Jim Collins in “Good to Great” as superior in terms of investor return over an extended period of time. Here’s what they learned:

  • Over a 10-year horizon, their selected companies outperformed the “Good to Greatcompanies by 1,028 percent to 331 percent (a 3.1 to 1 ratio)
  • Over five years, their selected companies outperformed the “Good to Great companies by 128 percent to 77 percent (a 1.7 to 1 ratio)

Just on the basis of comparison to the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, the public companies singled out by “Firms of Endearment” returned 1,026 percent for investors during the 10 years ending June 30, 2006, compared to 122 percent for the S&P 500—more than an 8 to 1 ratio. Over 5 years, it was even higher—128 percent compared to 13 percent, about a 10 to 1 ratio. Bottom line: Being human is good for the balance sheet, as well as the stakeholders.

Exemplars of branded customer experience also understand that there is a “journey” for customers in relationships with preferred companies. It begins with awareness, how the brand is introduced, i.e. the promise. Then, promise and created expectations must at least equal—and, ideally, exceed—real-world touchpoint results (such as through service), initially and sustained over time, with a minimum of disappointment.

As noted, there is a strong recognition that customer service is especially important in the branded experience. Service is one of the few times that companies will directly interact with their customers. This interaction helps the company understand customers’ needs while, at the same time, shaping customers’ overall perception of the company and influencing both downstream communication and future purchase.

And, branding the customer experience requires that the brand’s image, its personality if you will, is sustained and reinforced in communications and in every point of contact. Advanced companies map and plan this out, recognizing that experiences are actually a form of branding architecture, brought to life through excellent engineering. Companies need to focus on the touchpoints which are most influential.

Also, how much influence do your employees have on customer value perceptions and loyalty behavior through their day-to-day interactions? All employees, whether they are customer-facing or not, are the key common denominator in delivering optimized branded customer experiences. Making the experience for customers positive and attractive at each point where the company interacts with them requires an in-depth understanding of both customer needs and what the company currently does to achieve that goal, particularly through the employees. That means companies must fully comprehend, and leverage, the impact employees have on customer behavior.

So, is your company “human”? Does it understand customers and their individual journeys? Are customer experiences “human” and branded? Is communication, and are marketing efforts, micro-segmented and even personalized? Does the company create emotional, trust-based connections and relationships with customers? If the answer to these questions is “YES,” then “being human” becomes a reality, the value of which has been recognized for some time, and not merely as a buzz-concept.