5 Tips for Successful o2o Channel Leaping

The most strategically planned offline direct marketing effort can be sabotaged by weak links in an online sales order processing system. Moving a prospect from any offline channel marketing to online ordering has its clear benefits, but can be tricky. Whether from direct mail, broadcast, or other print source, your offline to online (o2o) channel redirection must be carefully designed, tested, and refined to maximize the conversion process. So here are five recommendations to ensure a seamless o2o leap.

The most strategically planned offline direct marketing effort can be sabotaged by weak links in an online sales order processing system. Moving a prospect from any offline channel marketing to online ordering has its clear benefits, but can be tricky. Whether from direct mail, broadcast, or other print source, your offline to online (o2o) channel redirection must be carefully designed, tested, and refined to maximize the conversion process. So here are five recommendations to ensure a seamless o2o leap.

In a past era, we direct marketers pitched our offer to our lists. When the prospect decided to buy, they would use a reply envelope to mail or phone their response. While that still happens today, more and more direct marketers prefer to drive a prospect to the web.

There is often a disconnect between concept and execution of taking a prospect from offline to online. We’re so close to the process that we sometimes assume a seamless o2o flow, but while fumbling around a keyboard, the prospect’s attention can be diverted. The online order experience can be clunky or even confusing. Sometimes too much is asked on the online order screen, and information overload sets in. Or we assume the customer is tech-savvy when in fact, they’re not. Orders and carts are abandoned because the prospect gives up.

What to do to ensure a seamless o2o leap? Here are five recommendations:

  1. Clarity Rules: Create a detailed flow chart of every possible path a prospect could take before they press “buy” to see if there is any unanswered or confusing language or visuals. Ensure that there are no dead-ends, and allow them to back up. And, be sure the form they’re returning to is still populated with their original entries, rather than being shown an infuriating screen full of blank fields.
  2. Roadmap the Journey: Manage expectations for your prospect with an overview of the process, why it’ll be worth their time, and how easy and quick it will be, especially if placing an order has multiple options.
  3. Wireframe to Visualize: If you, the marketer, are having trouble visualizing how it all works, just imagine how confused your customer will be. Developing even a crude wireframe will help ensure you don’t overlook something, or that the process unfolds logically and obviously.
  4. Clear Copy: Write to the reading level of your audience, but remember that online channels tend to be one where people are more rushed and scanning. They don’t always read for detail. Make it clear and simple.
  5. Tell and Sell with Video: People may not read copy as closely online, but they are apt to invest time watching a video with tips on how to place their order. It can save the customer time, and help reduce abandoned carts.

The back-end programming of online order systems are usually someone else’s responsibility. But, if you’re the marketer or copywriter, you need to put serious thought and effort into the customer-facing side, so it’s clear, friendly, and quick. Your prospect forms a lasting impression of your entire organization when you have an o2o channel leap requirement. And, if it’s muddled or worse, you may never have another opportunity to make it positive.

Any Time Is Search Time for Consumers

At a baseball game the other day, I couldn’t help but notice how many people in my seating area were busy looking at their phones, phablets or tablets. Baseball, with its languorous pace, provides spectators plenty of extra time to search online, check their email, send texts and engage with social media. It seems no one near me at the game was wasting a single moment of this valuable screen time. Savvy sports marketers already know this and regularly encourage social media use, providing hashtags and URLs almost everywhere.

At a baseball game the other day, I couldn’t help but notice how many people in my seating area were busy looking at their phones, phablets or tablets. Baseball, with its languorous pace, provides spectators plenty of extra time to search online, check their email, send texts and engage with social media. It seems no one near me at the game was wasting a single moment of this valuable screen time. Savvy sports marketers already know this and regularly encourage social media use, providing hashtags and URLs almost everywhere. Go to any sporting event and see for yourself just how much online activity is going on all around you. It would be a fair to say almost everybody is constantly online with a mobile device.

This highly distracted behavior is not confined to sporting events. This behavior is the new norm. It is pervasive. Google has recognized this and has adjusted their algorithm to give a boost to mobile friendly sites. There are several clear signals for ecommerce site owners in this shift to mobile. With limited search real estate available on smaller screens and search rankings increasingly difficult to secure, each organic search click becomes more important. They must not be wasted. It is imperative that a site catch the surfer on their first search and direct their attention directly to the product they want with minimal effort; otherwise that searcher may very well move on to another site or to some other online activity. Are you making it as easy as possible for all your visitors to find just what they want almost instantly? That should be the goal.

If your site were perfectly optimized—an ideal, hypothetical, situation, every searcher would conduct a search and find just the right product on the very first try. It doesn’t work that way even in fairy tales. It took Goldilocks three tries to find the “just right” porridge. Are you effectively supporting the customer’s quest through your navigation, and does Google understand how your navigation supports the user? If you cannot answer this in the affirmative, you need to adjust your proverbial sails to catch the wind.

Ask yourself whether your faceting supports a second more refined search query. For example, someone searching for “batting helmets” might want to refine their search to reflect the user (youth or adult), a brand or price preference, or the whether the helmet is for slow pitch softball or high-velocity hardball. Your navigation and its faceting should support this searcher behavior. Does your site make it easy for the first time visitor to quickly find additional options when they arrive from a search engine, or must they go through numerous clicks to see them?

Your navigation should act as a secondary search tool. Google has recognized the value of the navigation, and through site links allows site owners to communicate key navigational elements. We can expect to see Google continue to make efforts to compress more useful information into less space in the search listing in an effort to satisfy the user more quickly. Give your Google listings a quick sanity check and see if they conform to how users look for your products. One quick tip is to review your two and three word phrases and see if they show up when and where you would expect them. Search and shop your own site the next time you are sitting at a ball game with spare screen time. You’ll be surprised at what you might find out.

Marketing and IT; Cats and Dogs

Cats and dogs do not get along unless they grew up together since birth. That is because cats and dogs have rather fundamental communication problems with each other. A dog would wag his tail in an upward position when he wants to play. To a cat though, upward-tail is a sure sign of hostility, as in “What’s up, dawg?!” In fact, if you observe an angry or nervous cat, you will see that everything is up; tail, hair, toes, even her spine. So imagine the dog’s confusion in this situation, where he just sent a friendly signal that he wants to play with the cat, and what he gets back are loud hisses and scary evil eyes—but along with an upward tail that “looks” like a peace sign to him. Yeah, I admit that I am a bona-fide dog person, so I looked at this from his perspective, first. But I sympathize with the cat, too. As from her point of view, the dog started to mess with her, disrupting an afternoon slumber in her favorite sunny spot by wagging his stupid tail. Encounters like this cannot end well. Thank goodness that us Homo sapiens lost our tails during our evolutionary journey, as that would have been one more thing that clueless guys would have to decode regarding the mood of our female companions. Imagine a conversation like “How could you not see that I didn’t mean it? My tail was pointing the ground when I said that!” Then a guy would say, “Oh jeez, because I was looking at your lips moving up and down when you were saying something?”

 

Cats and dogs do not get along unless they grew up together since birth. That is because cats and dogs have rather fundamental communication problems with each other. A dog would wag his tail in an upward position when he wants to play. To a cat though, upward-tail is a sure sign of hostility, as in “What’s up, dawg?!” In fact, if you observe an angry or nervous cat, you will see that everything is up; tail, hair, toes, even her spine. So imagine the dog’s confusion in this situation, where he just sent a friendly signal that he wants to play with the cat, and what he gets back are loud hisses and scary evil eyes—but along with an upward tail that “looks” like a peace sign to him. Yeah, I admit that I am a bona-fide dog person, so I looked at this from his perspective first. But I sympathize with the cat, too. As from her point of view, the dog started to mess with her, disrupting an afternoon slumber in her favorite sunny spot by wagging his stupid tail. Encounters like this cannot end well. Thank goodness that us Homo sapiens lost our tails during our evolutionary journey, as that would have been one more thing that clueless guys would have to decode regarding the mood of our female companions. Imagine a conversation like “How could you not see that I didn’t mean it? My tail was pointing the ground when I said that!” Then a guy would say, “Oh jeez, because I was looking at your lips moving up and down when you were saying something?”

Of course I am generalizing for a comedic effect here, but I see communication breakdowns like this all the time in business environments, especially between the marketing and IT teams. You think men are from Mars and women are from Venus? I think IT folks are from Vulcan and marketing people are from Betazed (if you didn’t get this, find a Trekkie around you and ask).

Now that we are living in the age of Big Data where marketing messages must be custom-tailored based on data, we really need to find a way to narrow the gap between the marketing and the IT world. I wouldn’t dare to say which side is more like a dog or a cat, as I will surely offend someone. But I think even non-Trekkies would agree that it could be terribly frustrating to talk to a Vulcan who thinks that every sentence must be logically impeccable, or a Betazed who thinks that someone’s emotional state is the way it is just because she read it that way. How do they meet in the middle? They need a translator—generally a “human” captain of a starship—between the two worlds, and that translator had better speak both languages fluently and understand both cultures without any preconceived notions.

Similarly, we need translators between the IT world and the marketing world, too. Call such translators “data scientists” if you want (refer to “How to Be a Good Data Scientist”). Or, at times a data strategist or a consultant like myself plays that role. Call us “bats” caught in between the beasts and the birds in an Aesop’s tale, as we need to be marginal people who don’t really belong to one specific world 100 percent. At times, it is a lonely place as we are understood by none, and often we are blamed for representing “the other side.” It is hard enough to be an expert in data and analytics, and we now have to master the artistry of diplomacy. But that is the reality, and I have seen plenty of evidence as to why people whose main job it is to harness meanings out of data must act as translators, as well.

IT is a very special function in modern organizations, regardless of their business models. Systems must run smoothly without errors, and all employees and outside collaborators must constantly be in connection through all imaginable devices and operating systems. Data must be securely stored and backed up regularly, and permissions to access them must be granted based on complex rules, based on job levels and functions. Then there are constant requests to install and maintain new and strange software and technologies, which should be patched and updated diligently. And God forbid if anything fails to work even for a few seconds on a weekend, all hell will break lose. Simply, the end-users—many of them in positions of dealing with customers and clients directly—do not care about IT when things run smoothly, as they take them all for granted. But when they don’t, you know the consequences. Thankless job? You bet. It is like a utility company never getting praises when the lights are up, but everyone yelling and screaming if the service is disrupted, even for a natural cause.

On the other side of the world, there are marketers, salespeople and account executives who deal with customers, clients and their bosses, who would treat IT like their servants, not partners, when things do not “seem” to work properly or when “their” sales projections are not met. The craziest part is that most customers, clients and bosses state their goals and complaints in the most ambiguous terms, as in “This ad doesn’t look slick enough,” “This copy doesn’t talk to me,” “This app doesn’t stick” or “We need to find the right audience.” What the IT folks often do not grasp is that (1) it really stinks when you get yelled at by customers and clients for any reason, and (2) not all business goals are easily translatable to logical statements. And this is when all data elements and systems are functioning within normal parameters.

Without a proper translator, marketers often self-prescribe solutions that call for data work and analytics. Often, they think that all the problems will go away if they have unlimited access to every piece of data ever collected. So they ask for exactly that. IT will respond that such request will put a terrible burden on the system, which has to support not just marketing but also other operations. Eventually they may meet in the middle and the marketer will have access to more data than ever possible in the past. Then the marketers realize that their business issues do not go away just because they have more data in their hands. In fact, their job seems to have gotten even more complicated. They think that it is because data elements are too difficult to understand and they start blaming the data dictionary or lack thereof. They start using words like Data Governance and Quality Control, which may sound almost offensive to diligent IT personnel. IT will respond that they showed every useful bit of data they are allowed to share without breaking the security protocol, and the data dictionaries are all up to date. Marketers say the data dictionaries are hard to understand, and they are filled with too many similar variables and seemingly conflicting information. IT now says they need yet another tool set to properly implement data governance protocols and deploy them. Heck, I have seen cases where some heads of IT went for complete re-platforming of their system, as if that would answer all the marketing questions. Now, does this sound familiar so far? Does it sound like your own experience, like when you are reading “Dilbert” comic strips? It is because you are not alone in all this.

Allow me to be a little more specific with an example. Marketers often talk about “High-Value Customers.” To people who deal with 1s and 0s, that means less than nothing. What does that even mean? Because “high-value customers” could be:

  • High-dollar spenders—But what if they do not purchase often?
  • Frequent shoppers—But what if they don’t spend much at all?
  • Recent customers—Oh, those coveted “hotline” names … but will they stay that way, even for another few months?
  • Tenured customers—But are they loyal to your business, now?
  • Customers with high loyalty points—Or are they just racking up points and they would do anything to accumulate points?
  • High activity—Such as point redemptions and other non-monetary activities, but what if all those activities do not generate profit?
  • Profitable customers—The nice ones who don’t need much hand-holding. And where do we get the “cost” side of the equation on a personal level?
  • Customers who purchases extra items—Such as cruisers who drink a lot on board or diners who order many special items, as suggested.
  • Etc., etc …

Now it gets more complex, as these definitions must be represented in numbers and figures, and depending on the industry, whether be they for retailers, airlines, hotels, cruise ships, credit cards, investments, utilities, non-profit or business services, variables that would be employed to define seemingly straightforward “high-value customers” would be vastly different. But let’s say that we pick an airline as an example. Let me ask you this; how frequent is frequent enough for anyone to be called a frequent flyer?

Let’s just assume that we are going through an exercise of defining a frequent flyer for an airline company, not for any other travel-related businesses or even travel agencies (that would deal with lots of non-flyers). Granted that we have access to all necessary data, we may consider using:

1. Number of Miles—But for how many years? If we go back too far, shouldn’t we have to examine further if the customer is still active with the airline in question? And what does “active” mean to you?

2. Dollars Spent—Again for how long? In what currency? Converted into U.S. dollars at what point in time?

3. Number of Full-Price Ticket Purchases—OK, do we get to see all the ticket codes that define full price? What about customers who purchased tickets through partners and agencies vs. direct buyers through the airline’s website? Do they share a common coding system?

4. Days Between Travel—What date shall we use? Booking date, payment date or travel date? What time zones should we use for consistency? If UTC/GMT is to be used, how will we know who is booking trips during business hours vs. evening hours in their own time zone?

After a considerable hours of debate, let’s say that we reached the conclusion that all involved parties could live with. Then we find out that the databases from the IT department are all on “event” levels (such as clicks, views, bookings, payments, boarding, redemption, etc.), and we would have to realign and summarize the data—in terms of miles, dollars and trips—on an individual customer level to create a definition of “frequent flyers.”

In other words, we would need to see the data from the customer-centric point of view, just to begin the discussion about frequent flyers, not to mention how to communicate with each customer in the future. Now, it that a job for IT or marketing? Who will put the bell on the cat’s neck? (Hint: Not the dog.) Well, it depends. But this definitely is not a traditional IT function, nor is it a standalone analytical project. It is something in between, requiring a translator.

Customer-Centric Database, Revisited
I have been emphasizing the importance of a customer-centric view throughout this series, and I also shared some details regarding databases designed for marketing functions (refer to: “Cheat Sheet: Is Your Database Marketing Ready?”). But allow me to reiterate this point.

In the age of abundant and ubiquitous data, omnichannel marketing communication—optimized based on customers’ past transaction history, product preferences, and demographic and behavioral personas—should be an effortless routine. The reality is far from it for many organizations, as it is very common that much of the vital information is locked in silos without being properly consolidated or governed by a standard set of business rules. It is not that creating such a marketing-oriented database (or data-mart) is solely the IT department’s responsibility, but having a dedicated information source for efficient personalization should be an organizational priority in modern days.

Most databases nowadays are optimized for data collection, storage and rapid retrieval, and such design in general does not provide a customer-centric view—which is essential for any type of personalized communication via all conceivable channels and devices of the present and future. Using brand-, division-, product-, channel- or device-centric datasets is often the biggest obstacle in the journey to an optimal customer experience, as those describe events and transactions, not individuals. Further, bits and pieces of information must be transformed into answers to questions through advanced analytics, including statistical models.

In short, all analytical efforts must be geared toward meeting business objectives, and databases must be optimized for analytics (refer to “Chicken or the Egg? Data or Analytics?”). Unfortunately, the situation is completely reversed in many organizations, where analytical maneuvering is limited due to inadequate source data, and decision-making processes are dictated by limitations of available analytics. Visible symptoms of such cases are, to list a few, elongated project cycle time, decreasing response rates, ineffective customer communication, saturation of data sources due to overexposure, and—as I was emphasizing in this article—communication breakdown among divisions and team members. I can even go as far as to say that the lack of a properly designed analytical environment is the No. 1 cause of miscommunications between IT and marketing.

Without a doubt, key pieces of data must reside in the centralized data depository—generally governed by IT—for effective marketing. But that is only the beginning and still is just a part of the data collection process. Collected data must be consolidated around the solid definition of a “customer,” and all product-, transaction-, event- and channel-level information should be transformed into descriptors of customers, via data standardization, categorization, transformation and summarization. Then the data may be further enhanced via third-party data acquisition and statistical modeling, using all available data. In other words, raw data must be refined through these steps to be useful in marketing and other customer interactions, online or offline (refer to “‘Big Data’ Is Like Mining Gold for a Watch—Gold Can’t Tell Time“). It does not matter how well the original transaction- or event-level data are stored in the main database without visible errors, or what kind of state-of-the-art communication tool sets a company is equipped with. Trying to use raw data for a near real-time personalization engine is like putting unrefined oil into a high-performance sports car.

This whole data refinement process may sound like a daunting task, but it is not nearly as painful as analytical efforts to derive meanings out of unstructured, unconsolidated and uncategorized data that are scattered all over the organization. A customer-centric marketing database (call it a data-mart if “database” sounds too much like it should solely belong to IT) created with standard business rules and uniform variables sets would, in turn, provide an “analytics-ready” environment, where statistical modeling and other advanced analytics efforts would gain tremendous momentum. In the end, the decision-making process would become much more efficient as analytics would provide answers to questions, not just bits and pieces of fragmented data, to the ultimate beneficiaries of data. And answers to questions do not require an enormous data dictionary, either; fast-acting marketing machines do not have time to look up dictionaries, anyway.

Data Roadmap—Phased Approach
For the effort to build a consolidated marketing data platform that is analytics-ready (hence, marketing-ready), I always recommend a phased approach, as (1) inevitable complexity of a data consolidation project will be contained and managed more efficiently in carefully defined phases, and (2) each phase will require different types of expertise, tool sets and technologies. Nevertheless, the overall project must be managed by an internal champion, along with a group of experts who possess long-term vision and tactical knowledge in both database and analytics technologies. That means this effort must reside above IT and marketing, and it should be seen as a strategic effort for an entire organization. If the company already hired a Chief Data Officer, I would say that this should be one of the top priorities for that position. If not, outsourcing would be a good option, as an impartial decision-maker, who would play a role of a referee, may have to come from the outside.

The following are the major steps:

  1. Formulate Questions: “All of the above” is not a good way to start a complex project. In order to come up with the most effective way to build a centralized data depository, we first need to understand what questions must be answered by it. Too many database projects call for cars that must fly, as well.
  2. Data Inventory: Every organization has more data than it expected, and not all goldmines are in plain sight. All the gatekeepers of existing databases should be interviewed, and any data that could be valuable for customer descriptions or behavioral predictions should be considered, starting with product, transaction, promotion and response data, stemming from all divisions and marketing channels.
  3. Data Hygiene and Standardization: All available data fields should be examined and cleaned up, where some data may be discarded or modified. Free form fields would deserve special attention, as categorization and tagging are one of the key steps to opening up new intelligence.
  4. Customer Definition: Any existing Customer ID systems (such as loyalty program ID, account number, etc.) will be examined. It may be further enhanced with available PII (personally identifiable information), as there could be inconsistencies among different systems, and customers often move their residency or use multiple email addresses, creating duplicate identities. A consistent and reliable Customer ID system becomes the backbone of a customer-centric database.
  5. Data Consolidation: Data from different silos and divisions will be merged together based on the master Customer ID. A customer-centric database begins to take shape here. The database update process should be thoroughly tested, as “incremental” updates are often found to be more difficult than the initial build. The job is simply not done until after a few successful iterations of updates.
  6. Data Transformation: Once a solid Customer ID system is in place, all transaction- and event-level data will be transformed to “descriptors” of individual customers, via summarization by categories and creation of analytical variables. For example, all product information will be aligned for each customer, and transaction data will be converted into personal-level monetary summaries and activities, in both static and time-series formats. Promotion and response history data will go through similar processes, yielding individual-level ROI metrics by channel and time period. This is the single-most critical step in all of this, requiring deep knowledge in business, data and analytics, as the stage is being set for all future analytics and reporting efforts. Due to variety and uniqueness of business goals in different industries, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, either.
  7. Analytical Projects: Test projects will be selected and the entire process will be done on the new platform. Ad-hoc reporting and complex modeling projects will be conducted, and the results will be graded on timing, accuracy, consistency and user-friendliness. An iterative approach is required, as it is impossible to foresee all possible user requests and related complexities upfront. A database should be treated as a living, breathing organism, not something rigid and inflexible. Marketers will “break-in” the database as they use it more routinely.
  8. Applying the Knowledge: The outcomes of analytical projects will be applied to the entire customer base, and live campaigns will be run based on them. Often, major breakdowns happen at the large-scale deployment stages; especially when dealing with millions of customers and complex mathematical formulae at the same time. A model-ready database will definitely minimize the risk (hence, the term “in-database scoring”), but the process will still require some fine-tuning. To proliferate gained knowledge throughout the organization, some model scores—which pack deep intelligence in small sizes—may be transferred back to the main databases managed by IT. Imagine model scores driving operational decisions—live, on the ground.
  9. Result Analysis: Good marketing intelligence engines must be equipped with feedback mechanisms, effectively closing the “loop” where each iteration of marketing efforts improves its effectiveness with accumulated knowledge on a customer level. It is very unfortunate that many marketers just move through the tracks set up by their predecessors, mainly because existing database environments are not even equipped to link necessary data elements on a customer level. Too many back-end analyses are just event-, offer- or channel-driven, not customer-centric. Can you easily tell which customer is over-, under- or adequately promoted, based on a personal-level promotion-and-response ratio? With a customer-centric view established, you can.

These are just high-level summaries of key steps, and each step should be managed as independent projects within a large-scale initiative with common goals. Some steps may run concurrently to reduce the overall timeline, and tactical knowledge in all required technologies and tool sets is the key for the successful implementation of centralized marketing intelligence.

Who Will Do the Work?
Then, who will be in charge of all this and who will actually do the work? As I mentioned earlier, a job of this magnitude requires a champion, and a CDO may be a good fit. But each of these steps will require different skill sets, so some outsourcing may be inevitable (more on how to pick an outsourcing partner in future articles).

But the case that should not be is the IT team or the analytics team solely dictating the whole process. Creating a central depository of marketing intelligence is something that sits between IT and marketing, and the decisions must be made with business goals in mind, not just limitations and challenges that IT faces. If the CDO or the champion of this type of initiative starts representing IT issues before overall business goals, then the project is doomed from the beginning. Again, it is not about touching the core database of the company, but realigning existing data assets to create new intelligence. Raw data (no matter how clean they are at the collection stage) are like unrefined raw materials to the users. What the decision-makers need are simple answers to their questions, not hundreds of data pieces.

From the user’s point of view, data should be:

  • Easy to understand and use (intuitive to non-mathematicians)
  • Bite-size (i.e., small answers, not mounds of raw data)
  • Useful and effective (consistently accurate)
  • Broad (answers should be available most of time, not just “sometimes”)
  • Readily available (data should be easily accessible via users’ favorite devices/channels)

And getting to this point is the job of a translator who sits in between marketing and IT. Call them data scientists or data strategists, if you like. But they do not belong to just marketing or IT, even though they have to understand both sides really well. Do not be rigid, insisting that all pilots must belong to the Air Force; some pilots do belong to the Navy.

Lastly, let me add this at the risk of sounding like I am siding with technologists. Marketers, please don’t be bad patients. Don’t be that bad patient who shows up at a doctor’s office with a specific prescription, as in “Don’t ask me why, but just give me these pills, now.” I’ve even met an executive who wanted a neural-net model for his business without telling me why. I just said to myself, “Hmm, he must have been to one of those analytics conferences recently.” Then after listening to his “business” issues, I prescribed an entirely different solution package.

So, instead of blurting out requests for pieces of data variables or queries using cool-sounding, semi-technical terms, state the business issues and challenges that you are facing as clearly as possible. IT and analytics specialists will prescribe the right solution for you if they understand the ultimate goals better. Too often, requesters determine the solutions they want without any understanding of underlying technical issues. Don’t forget that the end-users of any technology are only exposed to symptoms, not the causes.

And if Mr. Spock doesn’t seem to understand your issues and keeps saying that your statements are illogical, then call in a translator, even if you have to hire him for just one day. I know this all too well, because after all, this one phrase summarizes my entire career: “A bridge person between the marketing world and the IT world.” Although it ain’t easy to live a life as a marginal person.

Best Practices Exist for a Reason, Part 1: Email

I’m continually stunned when a client, art director, copywriter or any other strategist in the marketing industry insists on using a design or copy technique that directly contradicts proven best practices.

I’m continually stunned when a client, art director, copywriter or any other strategist in the marketing industry insists on using a design or copy technique that directly contradicts proven best practices.

Over the years, I’ve absorbed studies about the ventricles of the brain and how it performs distinctly different cognitive processes. I’ve read color studies, the anatomy of eye movement, how words and numbers trigger comprehension and reaction, fonts and their role in evoking an emotional reaction, persuasion psychology and unconscious motivation—the list goes on and on—all in an effort to apply these learnings in order to help our clients get the maximum response to their marketing efforts.

While I have a laundry list of “must-do’s” for every medium, I thought I’d share a few digital best practices as Part 1 in a series, and I’d love to hear why you’re NOT following these proven techniques:

  • Test Your Subject Lines: According to a 2014 poll by Howling Mad’s Parry Malm, marketers ranked subject lines among the top variable that affected email response rates however 25% ever conducted any testing. Parry (one of the leading experts on email subject lines) has learned that ‘Sale’ delivers 23.2% opens while ‘Save’ only gets 3.4%. He also found that if the subject line is personalized but the email content isn’t, you gain opens but don’t drive clicks. I put that insight in my ‘Duh!’ file.
  • Buttons Will Get More Clicks Than Text Links: Many have tested this theory (myself included) and the answer seems to always conclude that buttons will outperform text links. AWeber conducted a series of button/text links, and their findings are fascinating as they determined that, over time, text links outperformed the buttons—but they also concluded that what works today, may not work tomorrow. Again, test and keep testing.
  • Text Links Should Be in Color: While this might seem like a ‘Duh!’ I’m always surprised when I accidently hover my finger or mouse over a block of text and discover “there’s a hyperlink in them there hills!” If you want me to take an action (like clicking on something) then lead my horse to the water.
  • A Button Needs to Look Like a Button: Neil Patel, the co-founder of Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics, owns the button testing world hands down and he concludes that the digital button that gets the most clicks is shaped like a button (rounded corners, slight drop shadow) and is colored (or at least in contrast to the rest of the page of copy in order to stand out—duh). Try NOT to match the color of your button to other call-out boxes on the page as the distraction prevents the action.
  • Button Copy Should Be in First Person: Try this test yourself. If your action button is written in third person (“Start now” or “Try Product X Free”) try testing it against copy in the 1st person (“Help Me Work Faster” or “End My Headaches”). It’s highly likely you’ll see a lift of at least 25% in clicks, at least according to Ashtyn Douglas and Joanna Wiebe who conducted similar tests.
  • Fonts Matter: While many designers will argue this topic endlessly, the current consensus is that sans serif fonts are superior for body text and serif fonts are best for headlines. Of course if you have a newer display, it doesn’t make much difference. But not everyone has the newest technology and some work on displays that are 10+ years old, so if you target a senior audience (yes, that includes senior managers in small companies who cannot afford to regularly upgrade their hardware), you may want to design for maximum legibility. Make sure your font is a system font (most likely to be supported by the majority of email clients and web browsers) like Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, Geneva or Trebuchet MS, and large enough for people to read without any effort—at least 10 if not 12 pt. Even though Google is now providing supposedly supported modern web fonts, it’s a little too early to tell whether every email client and web browser will be able to properly display them.

In summary, if all of these marketers have already done all the testing for you, why wouldn’t you at least consider these insights and apply them to your own email marketing efforts? Tell me. I’m all ears.

Hottest 2014 Marketing Tip for Small Business? Put Aside a Budget!

Over 50 percent of the working population (120 million) work in a small business, and that trend is growing. According to the SBA definition, there were nearly 28 million small businesses in 2013, and 6 million of those had employees beyond just the owner

Over 50 percent of the working population (120 million) work in a small business, and that trend is growing. According to the SBA definition, there were nearly 28 million small businesses in 2013, and 6 million of those had employees beyond just the owner.

Judging from the number of small business attendees at webinars, online and at events and conferences on how to grow your business, they’re craving solid marketing advice. But unfortunately, it seems no one told them that marketing takes time, costs money (more than you’d think!), and doesn’t pay out instantly.

So I dedicate this blog post to all the small business owners out there who want some solid marketing advice—for free. Here are eight marketing tips that every business, no matter what size, should take to heart:

  1. Create a Clear USP
    This is the secret sauce missing for many companies—your Unique Selling Proposition. What makes your business different from the next guy’s? Why should I do business with you at all? If you’re a dry cleaner, it’s all about location and ease of access (including parking). But if you’re an accountant, how do you distinguish yourself from every other accountant? Are you more current on tax codes? Are you faster and therefore more efficient on the preparation of my tax return? Think about why you started your business in the first place and what makes your customers loyal—those can be good foundations for a marketing platform.
  2. Build and Maintain a User-Friendly Website
    Your website is the face of your business, and too often there hasn’t been enough time, effort or thought given to this critical calling card. Broken links, typos, lengthy copy that rambles on and on (without a point), too many navigation options, poor design choices (tiny type, or worse, tiny type reversed on a dark background) are all the hallmarks of a bad first impression.
  3. Create Marketing Solutions Based on the Business Problem You’re Trying to Solve.
    There’s too much emphasis these days on generating new leads. Take a look at your existing customer base—is there an opportunity to sell them more product or additional services? Examine your sales funnel—where’s the drop-off point? Why do people start a dialogue with you and then discontinue? I worked with one company recently who focused their entire effort on “new lead” volume, but after auditing their sales funnel discovered they weren’t adequately following up with leads after a key decision-making point in the conversion process. Once we adjusted that process, they doubled their sales (even though they maintained their lead level).
  4. Smart Marketing Costs Money
    Many smaller businesses hire a marketing person and expect them to understand marketing strategy, planning, art direction, copywriting, HTML, SEO, SEM, printing techniques, database design and management, analysis, web design, and email blasting. But the reality is, most marketers at this level are simply good project managers. As a result, the creative work is unsophisticated and the strategy non-existent. Different aspects of marketing should be handled by different professionals—I have yet to meet that “jack-of-all-trades” who is also “master-of-all-trades.”
  5. Respect Marketing Professionals
    If you do hire help, fight the urge to ask your friends and neighbors to review/assess the marketing advice/creative recommendations you’ve received. If you’ve spent the time and energy to vet professional help before you hired them, then trust them do their job. If they know what they’re doing, they should be able to develop a strategy (which you approve) and work with other professionals to develop the media and creative to support that strategy (with rationale). You don’t need to rewrite headlines, make color change recommendations or choose your favorite font. That results in bad, disjointed work … period.
  6. Social Media Is Not the Answer
    While there’s plenty of good that can come from social media marketing, it’s highly unlikely that it will keep your business thriving by itself. You can spent a lot of energy generating Facebook “likes” which result in $0 sales. Instead, think about your target audience and their media consumption habits. Then, as the cliché goes, fish where the fish are. And yes, that means spending some money.

So here’s the big “AHA!” that’s missing in most marketing efforts: It’s called a marketing budget.

Want folks to find your website? That means your site needs to be optimized for Search (SEO)—and you need to some money on key words, banner ads, etc. Think about the role that Yelp might play in your business and consider an ad campaign on Yelp.

Just because you build a business doesn’t mean they will come. It will take time—and money—to drive traffic to your doorstep. Visiting your website is only half the battle, so you’d better be diligent about figuring out how to convert that traffic into buyers or all the effort you’ve spent to drive them there will be wasted.

Avoiding the One-Night Stand

Stating that all customers are not created equal is hardly an oversimplification. But, just like the pigs in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” some customers are more equal than others. No company has unlimited resources to equally service or support all its customers. Repeat buying power, the essence of customer loyalty, is everything. Some customers are worth a great deal, some may become more valuable over time, some may be valuable for a brief period but may be easily lured away, and some are never likely to become valuable.

Stating that all customers are not created equal is hardly an oversimplification. But, just like the pigs in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” some customers are more equal than others. No company has unlimited resources to equally service or support all its customers. Repeat buying power, the essence of customer loyalty, is everything. Some customers are worth a great deal, some may become more valuable over time, some may be valuable for a brief period but may be easily lured away, and some are never likely to become valuable.

At minimum, companies need to segment their customers so they can determine how much longer that customer will remain with them, how much revenue each customer will contribute, how much and what kind of services the customer should receive, and what efforts will be needed to keep them whether they are new, at risk, or even already lost. Also, if a company is changing product or service focus—such as beginning a new customer experience management or frequency marketing program—decisions will have to be made about which customers it wants to retain.

Just as companies are becoming smarter about keeping the customers they want or “firing” less attractive customers through stepped-down services, they have to invest more upfront, at the beginning of the customer life cycle, in learning which potential customers will be the most valuable over time. This goes beyond segmentation. It is almost pre-segmentation.

Here’s a prime example. The business of gaming in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, numerous riverboats, Indian reservations and offshore is built not on a house of cards, but a house of numbers. At Las Vegas casinos like the Rio, those players who gamble $1,000 a day with the Rio, whether they win or not, receive the designation “hosted guests.” These are the kinds of customers the Rio works hard to acquire. Their level of play accords them VIP status, with more “comps” (free dinners, show passes and other gifts). Each hosted guest has an individual staff host assigned to check on them and provide any needed services.

The host is actually a highly paid, personal customer service representative. It’s an important position, which casino operations like the Rio consider pivotal to their success. The hosts cultivate relationships with the players; and VIP players are encouraged to call their hosts before arriving at the casino, so the host can have show tickets, restaurant reservations and suites set up, per the player’s profile.

There’s even a higher echelon of gaming customers—those players who have a $1 million line of credit. They get the best suites and virtually everything the casino has to offer. They’re nicknamed “whales,” and with good reason. At the Rio, this means a suite with 7,000 square feet of space and bathroom sinks with gold-plated faucets. These players are relied upon to bet in the Rio’s secluded back room, called the Salon, where they may play baccarat and roulette with $100,000 chips.

In an industry like gaming, where the level of customer migration is very high, it is imperative that casinos not only keep the players they want but target the right customers in the first place. They do this in a number of ways, including geodemographic profiling for their acquisition. For the high rollers they’ve lost, many of the casinos make an extra effort to get them back, as well.

Advanced companies have begun applying “conversion” models, seeking customers who:

  • Need less direct motivation (incentive) or indirect motivation (promise of support and committed resources) to purchase;
  • Have demonstrated more resistance to claims and attempts to lure them away;
  • Are less price-sensitive;
  • Are more accepting of occasional value delivery lapses and are less likely to accept alternatives if the brand/service is unavailable; and
  • Demonstrate more positive attitudes about “their” brand.

In the retail automotive industry, as another example, potentially loyal new customers take less time making their purchase decisions, consider fewer dealerships, are less price-driven, and rely less on magazine articles and other media and more on previous experience and personal recommendation.

Some years ago, South African researchers Jan Hofmeyr and Butch Rice created an effective conversion model, which helped marketers develop and sustain effective customer loyalty initiatives programs for customers, both new and established. They found that, beyond customer needs and value delivery requirements, companies must understand the potential depth of a customer’s commitment to the supplier. Part of this means identifying the degree of customers’ tangible and intangible involvement with the company. Tangible involvement can include such factors as the actual dollar cost of switching to a competitor. Intangible issues include the emotional strength of the connection or the upset and insecurity created by switching suppliers. The model also measures the degree of attractiveness of competitive brands, based on what these customers want as prioritized elements of value.

Hofmeyr and Rice’s model also enabled them to view their clients’ marketplace in terms of users and non-users. Users can be divided into those who are truly committed and loyal and those who are “convertible”; that is, declining or wavering in their loyalty. Non-users—prospects and previous customers—are divided into potentially convertible and non-available (because they are committed to their current supplier).

Detailed analysis could then be developed for current customers and prospects. The percentage of current customers who are entrenched, or completely loyal, can be identified, as well as those who have moderate loyalty, shallow loyalty, or convertibility (true vulnerability). Non-users, or prospects, could also be identified in a similar manner: those who are available, or highly receptive to a competitive offer; and those who are ambivalent, but who would switch with the right value-based incentive. Other prospects, who have average or strong loyalty to their brand or supplier, are considered unavailable by the model.

The model has been used to plan the amount of advertising and promotional activity required for new customers and prospects, according to their commitment level and potential value. It has been applied in more than 50 countries and for scores of products and services.

On an everyday, or tactical, basis, companies should also always be on the lookout for customers who could represent more of a problem than the revenue they might contribute. Through our own research, we’ve identified seven such types of customers:

  • Non-Complainers—Customers who never express any negative feelings about performance or identify potential areas of improvement may just be hiding their disaffection. Marketing scientist Theodore Levitt has said: “One of the surest signs of a bad or declining relationship with a customer is the absence of complaints. Nobody is ever that satisfied, especially not over an extended period of time.”
  • Over-Complainers—Customers who tend to complain frequently, sometimes irrespective of whether their issues are really consequently or not, can beat down a company’s morale and overtax its support infrastructure.
  • Price Grinders—New customers who pressure their suppliers to lower prices on initial sales in return—they often promise—for future business that may or may not exist.
  • Chronic Defectors—When customers have a history of pulling their business without explanation or warning, this may be a sign that they’ll never be happy with any supplier’s performance. Their volatility and refusal to communicate issues makes them undesirable.
  • Friends in Need—These “quick-jump” customers who want to find new suppliers with great haste often don’t make purchase decisions very well, or they may have economic challenges.
  • Discourteous Slobs—Any customers who are chronically rude and verbally abusive, even though they may not contact their suppliers frequently, can undermine a company’s morale and operations. If they have reason to be upset or annoyed, that’s one thing. Their concerns should, obviously, be addressed and dealt with as quickly as possible. If the negative behavior continues, they’re probably not worth the effort.
  • Misfits—The needs of some new customers may simply not align well with the supplier’s ability to perform. If, for example, 99.9 percent of the deliveries to customers are made during normal business hours and the new customer wants delivery in the middle of the night, unless this customer truly represents a great deal of business, they are probably not serviceable.

If most people are like me—a statement always open to interpretation—virtually every day they will see content or promotional material from long distance telephone companies offering their latest and greatest low cost plans. Typically, they don’t try to find out about my business and personal long distance needs. They just try to push the plan. One of the enduring reasons for the high rates of customer turnover in this industry is the lack of scientific prospect targeting, and attempts to understand potential customers’ tangible and intangible switching issues, done at the outset. Perhaps it’s time for their conversion.

How to Create High Performing Sweepstakes for Lead-Gen Efforts

OK, I know what you’re thinking … viable leads typically don’t come from sweepstakes and contests. And when not done correctly, that’s exactly right. However, just as any online direct response tactic, this one is no different. Over the years, sweepstakes marketing has become refined through testing and targeting. And since the boom in social media, sweepstakes are more popular than ever. But before you embark on this tactic, there are a few core concepts to know—as well as best practices.

OK, I know what you’re thinking … viable leads typically don’t come from sweepstakes and contests.

And when not done correctly, that’s exactly right.

However, just as any online direct response tactic, this one is no different. Over the years, sweepstakes marketing has become refined through testing and targeting. And since the boom in social media, sweepstakes are more popular than ever.

But before you embark on this tactic, there are a few core concepts to know—as well as best practices.

The Precursors

It’s important to get to know your list to help determine its value and how much you are willing to give away for a lead, such as:

  • What is your average conversion time (how long does it take someone to move from a lead to a buyer—30, 60, 90-plus days?)
  • What is the lifetime value (LTV) per buyer?
  • What is your average revenue per name?
  • What is your average cost per lead (CPL)?

Conversion Time. Monitor a group of new names (perhaps by campaign) who come on your file and see at what point, at what percent and for what dollar amount your leads convert to buyers. This will help you know how much and how long it takes a lead to convert. Let’s say you have a pay-per-click campaign and, in the first 30 days, 20 percent of the leads convert and the average unit sale is $50. This shows you your time threshold for getting a sale. You’ll know when to anticipate revenues and can manage your budget accordingly.

LTV. You take the total your buyers purchased: Let’s say over five years, this group collectively spent $100,000, and divide that amount by number of buyers (let’s say its 500). Your LTV is $200. This will show you the potential long-term opportunity for a buyer’s worth, as well as the loss (if the customer leaves your list).

Rev Per Name. This is more for the current buyers on your file not long term, as with LTV. Take the total your buyers spend at 30, 60 and 90 days; and at each time point, divide that amount by the number of buyers. So let’s say at 30 days, your newest names bring in collectively $10,000 and there are 1,000 buyers. That is a $10/rev per name. This will show you current buyer worth and your threshold for acquisition costs.

Cost Per Lead. When you’re doing an acquisition effort, how much does it cost you per name? Take the cost of the media buy and divide by the number of leads that came in. This will tell you how much you typically spend to bring in a new name. Ideally, you want to keep you cost per lead much lower than your revenue per name and LTV. I like to hover between $5 and $25 CPL. CPLs will be different by channel. However, if you bring in a lead at $50 and you know, based on your list performance, that name will spend $75 in the first 6 months, you can afford to take an initial loss.

The Offer

What are you going to give away? The value of the giveaway should be something that won’t be viewed as too good to be true by users as well, as one you can earn back (based on the aforementioned list criteria and in a certain time period). So knowing your giveaway threshold is important.

In addition to being realistic and appealing, the offer should also be relevant and interesting to your target prospect.

I’ve seen random sweepstakes offers on the Web, as I’m sure you have. One in particular, a publishing company, featured an offer: “Win a free iPad.”

This makes zero sense to me in so many ways …

Unless this publishing company is uploading an app on the iPad with a free online subscription to one of their publications, I don’t see the relevance for the end-user. This publisher will likely wind up with thousands of leads, but they will be unqualified, irrelevant people looking for a free electronic device and not in the other information products they offer.

Plus there’s an out-of-pocket cost for the product and shipping of the product.

This, in my opinion, is typical of the “old” sweepstakes offers where little strategy and direct response knowledge seemed to go into planning the campaign.

However, one website I discovered in my research for this article seems to hit the nail on the head and offer something synergistic to their leads, as well as qualifies the lead for future potential sales via cross-sell and upsell efforts.

Take skin care company, Dermagist. Their sweepstakes offer is for lead generation, touts a “$200 shopping spree,” and is featured on their website and Facebook page. The tactics they are using can be applied to most any industry.

Leads have to “register” by liking Dermagist’s Facebook page, as well as post on Dermagists’ Facebook page why they love the product. Winners are chosen monthly and given a promo code worth $200 toward anything in their store. No purchase is necessary.

What I Like …

The offer is ongoing, so it’s a continuity of new leads (email addresses) coming in on a monthly basis to help build the list and offset any attrition.

The prize is realistic, targeted and qualifies the recipient based on relevant interest—it’s appealing to those interested in skincare products and is a great way to get repeat and referral sales.

Leads have to “register” by liking Dermagist Facebook page, as well as post on their Facebook wall why they love the product. This strategy helps with social media engagement (boosting page “likes,” visibility and credibility), as well as product awareness.

I also liked that on the website’s sweepstakes registration page, last month’s winner’s name was posted. This helps reinforce contest legitimacy.

Location, Location, Location

Where you promote your sweepstakes is equally important for targeting and relevance.

There’s the obvious, such as having a banner ad, header content or interstitial on the website’s home page mentioning the promotion.

You can also promote it on your business’ Facebook page organically (through fan page timeline and wall posts), through apps, as well as through targeted ads and boosted posts, selecting audiences in the Newsfeed that are like-minded with your target customer.

Tabsite has a variety of Facebook-friendly apps for contests and sweepstakes (photos, trivia and more).

A word of caution: If you are promoting a sweepstakes on Facebook, make sure to follow its guidelines or your campaign may run the risk of getting shut down.

Promoting it organically with search engine marketing is another tactic, such as with free online press releases.

And, of course, if your budget allows, you can promote your sweepstakes through targeted media buys (banner ads, email list rental) and pay-per-click. These costs should be factored into the overall campaign effort and cost per lead.

So when you start thinking about your acquisition efforts and how sweepstakes may be used, know that through the evolution of the consumer and Internet marketing in general, this is not your father’s sweepstakes anymore.

Being a creative and strategic marketer will help you take this strategy to a whole new, high-performing level.

The Email Hierarchy of Needs: Deliverability is the Foundation

If you’re not getting the most of your email messaging, you might not be asking the right questions. How many times have I been asked “What’s the best day of the week to send email”, “What’s the best time of day to send email”, “What’s the best Email Provider”? These questions are much less important than the big questions. “Is my email getting to my subscribers?” “Can my subscribers read my email on their device”? “Do my subscribers want my email or are they hitting ‘spam’?

If you’re not getting the most out of your email messaging, you might not be asking the right questions.

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked, “What’s the best day of the week to send email?” “What’s the best time of day to send email?” “Which is the best email provider?” These questions are much less important than the big ones: “Is my email getting to my subscribers?” “Can subscribers read my emails on their mobile device?” “Do subscribers want to receive my email or are they hitting ‘spam’?”

Many times companies want to run before they walk. There are times when first to market or a beta version of a product is more important than getting it perfect the first time. However, if you take that approach with email messaging, you better make sure you have your fundamentals squared away first. What does it matter what time the email is sent if it gets sent to the “spam” folder anyway? It doesn’t matter what email provider you use if you keep mailing outdated lists.

The foundation: Deliverability and inbox placement
In the end, none of your email messaging efforts are going to make any impact if the subscriber doesn’t receive the email. The first barrier to overcome in email marketing is deliverability. Email services, ISPs that provide email services and the software on which subscribers view emails have an arsenal of anti-spam tactics they use to keep your email from getting to subscribers. In a world of spammers, phishers and corporate network admins trying to increase productivity by filtering distracting emails, the odds are stacked against you that your email message will be delivered to your subscribers. There are a number of factors that contribute to your deliverability and inbox placement, including the following:

Sending platform
This is the reason marketers use email service providers (ESPs) instead of sending emails via Outlook or Gmail. Brands also use ESPs instead of letting their developers with no email experience say, “we’ll build it.” Email delivery is complex.

The configuration of the mail transfer agent, the proper processing of bounces and unsubscribes, the feedback loops necessary to track and opt out spam complaints, and the proper throttle rates per domain takes a team. This is where the question “what is the best ESP” becomes interesting. All successful ESPs must have this piece down to a science. The first question I ask an emerging ESP is how many people are on its deliverability team. If the answer is “we all just pitch in” (that’s a real answer I received once), then I stay away.

Your data
The single most important thing you have control of to optimize deliverability is good data practices. This means list hygiene and validation to eliminate malformed and undeliverable email addresses. It means opting out subscribers who ask to be unsubscribed. It means regularly mailing your entire list, having clean and transparent opt-in practices, and keeping your database clean and centralized to allow you to target subscribers based on their actions and preferences.

Your creative
A terrible email message alone won’t land your message in the spam folder, but it certainly won’t help. Email can be marked as spam for a combination of things: content, IP reputation, from name/domain, etc. If you’re spamming people, your email won’t get delivered, even if your content doesn’t have “FREE” or “Viagra” in it. If you send emails that people open and click on like crazy and nobody ever hits “this is spam,” you can say free (almost) as much as you want. Most companies are somewhere in between. Test prior to sending. Usually one “free” won’t kill your deliverability.

Of course, this overly simplifies the complex issue of email deliverability to some basics tenants. Spam filters are updated regularly in an attempt to thwart the efforts of spammers. Companies will have the most success getting their emails delivered by respecting the permission and preferences of their subscribers, as well as working with a reputable ESP that has a deliverability team to tackle the technical aspect of bounce handling and email send settings.

When a Customer Is Not Worthy

As business owners and employees of businesses, we all work diligently to acquire prospects, qualify leads and convert customers, but sometimes we need to stop and consider whether a particular person or company is worthy of our efforts. It makes our constituents feel appreciated and empowered when we treat them well and expend effort to develop the relationship, but

As business owners and employees of businesses, we all work diligently to acquire prospects, qualify leads and convert customers, but sometimes we need to stop and consider whether a particular person or company is worthy of our efforts.

It makes our constituents feel appreciated and empowered when we treat them well and expend effort to develop the relationship, but in some cases that empowerment can go to one of their heads and lead the person to behave in a manner not conducive to a healthy relationship.

There have been a number of instances over the years where I’ve needed to ask prospective or current customers to take their business elsewhere. While this is never a pleasant conversation, it can be critical in ensuring your company remains profitable, your employees remain appreciated and happy, and you remain sane. The best way to approach this conversation is with civility and a calm tone.

More often than not, an unhappy customer will vent their frustration on an underling with the assumption the person is unprepared to manage the onslaught. Annoyed customers will attack in a way they believes will result in a resolution favoring them—sometimes greatly and to the detriment of the employee’s wellbeing and the company’s profitability. We’re all able to take a loss every now and then to satisfy an unhappy customer, but when you have a repeat offender (customer), it’s time to step in.

Every employee and contractor in my organization knows they are never expected to submit to a venting, complaining or abusive customer—period. The employee’s response is mandatory and simple, “Please hold and I will have our manager help you.” From there, I am quick to set the ground rules as I take over the call. I will listen to the customer politely and allow that person to give voice to their entire complaint, but they may not scream, call names or be uncivil in any manner. If they are, I will hang up. I will continue to hang up each time the person calls back until they accept and adhere to the rules of this engagement (to date, it hasn’t gone beyond three hang ups).

Beyond this, I make it clear I am fully responsible for my team’s actions and responses, and we will not engage in a bashing of a personal nature. I will not side with the complainant against my team, but I will be empathetic to the customer’s plight and go to great lengths to find a resolution suitable to the situation—for as long as we can continue to have a professional, if not amicable, discussion.

For plaintiffs who cannot accept and follow the ground rules, it’s even simpler: “I’m sorry we did not meet your expectations, here is the phone number to another company providing this product/service. We’re confident you will be happier elsewhere.”

This type of response shifts the power from the complaining customer to the employee and fosters a better relationship between you and the person with whom you work every day instead of a customer whose value is far less. Yes, some customers have great monetary worth, and for those you will exert additional effort to resolve the situation before sending them on their way, but for most small businesses, individual customers have a smaller overall value than a dedicated employee.

With that said, there are ways for a customer to complain without aggressive discourse—those are the customers we want to please, keep, and reward—and for those, it’s best to keep the employee in the discussion. These are the customers whom I prefer to foster and benefit, even at a monetary loss to the company. They often turn out to be long-term, repeat customers because we have created an atmosphere of loyalty by tending to their concerns as a team. (Why would we allow an abusive customer to receive a more beneficial resolution than a kind, calm customer who truly wishes to resolve the condition?)

Sometimes customers are unworthy in other manners. We recently spent quite some time reviewing a lead’s current drip-marketing campaign, only to come to the conclusion we really couldn’t add enough value to their current process to make hiring our company beneficial to them. In this situation, we fired the customer before we were hired, and we were quite frank about why. I don’t know how this response was truly received by the customer; they did seem to be happy with our honesty. If I were on the receiving end of this conversation, I would rather have a company tell me genuinely they cannot help me than to have them take my money for months/years and be no wiser for the engagement—but not everyone thinks like I do. (Thankfully.)

In many ways, email marketing has cultivated an atmosphere allowing customers to be more unhappy and more quickly. The anonymity of email makes marketers seem less like a company of people here to serve their needs and more like a faceless organization poised to aggravate them. Gone are phone calls that allowed us to connect with at least a modicum human interaction, in their place we have electronic communications sent to thousands of people all at once. This is why personalization can be so important to you and to the recipient. Adding a bit or a lot of personalization warms the tone and the relationship. It reminds the receiver, you are a company of people who care about their success. It will also help lay a foundation of civility if a divorce is imminent.

If you must fire an email customer, don’t fire by email. Pick up the phone, set the ground rules, and be polite and professional. It’s the least you can do. You may not be able to salvage the relationship, but you’re less likely to leave them with a terrible last impression.

5 Important Email Tips for Converting Prospects to Customers

The harder you make it for your prospects to become customers, the fewer will. Most marketers agree that lead generation and lead conversion are the bedrocks of their efforts. As you scrutinize your internal process to convert prospects to customers, remember that, in order to consistently convert, you must at least

(Editor’s Note: This is a preview of Cyndie’s presentation on the upcoming webinar “Email for Customer Acquisition: 5 Great Ways to Expand Your List, and Your Profits!,” with Yeva Roberts of Standard Register, airing Jan. 28 at 2 p.m. EST. Register here to watch the rest live tomorrow, or catch it on-demand starting Jan. 29.)

The harder you make it for your prospects to become customers, the fewer will.

Most marketers agree that lead generation and lead conversion are the bedrocks of their efforts. As you scrutinize your internal process to convert prospects to customers, remember that, in order to consistently convert, you must at least:

  • Provide a clear, concise path to becoming a customer.
  • Enable your prospect to become a customer.
  • Resolve any concerns your prospect has about becoming a customer.

1. Be Timely, Relevant and Easy
Conversion begins at the moment of acquisition—waiting to engage is the kiss of death if you hope to hold the attention of your new prospect. We humans have very short memories—and attention spans—and marketers who allow the opportunity for one to forget a recent engagement will be saddled with lower retention and conversion rates over the customer’s lifecycle.

Your first touch to new prospects must be prompt and direct as you remind the recipient of how the relationship began and, ideally, lay out the path for becoming a highly valued customer. Using email, converting prospects to leads can be quite easy, and when you group likeminded prospects into segments, you can also create highly relevant content appropriate for this audience.

When relevant content is bolstered by personalization, your messaging can transcend a timid first step and become a flat stone skipping through sales ripples reducing necessary touches to a simple few.

Tracking clicked links and buttons within your email will enable you to appropriately respond to engagement with auto-responders recognizing specific engagement activities. Auto-responders are unique tools for reminding prospects they engaged with your brand and helping them resume the process if they’ve become distracted along the way.

2. Provide High-value Content
Inbound marketing represents one of the most successful approaches to converting prospects to leads, leads to subscribers, and subscribers to customers. Your content should be well-written and professionally designed while establishing your brand as an expert.

Your e-books, slide decks, videos, webcasts, demos and the like must be honest and forthright in order to establish your credibility, and should not shy away from areas where your competitors have you bested. Recognizing and addressing these areas will foster trust and help you to build upon these new, budding relationships.

When you post inbound content to your website, you will drive repeat visits; visits that naturally develop, deepen and nurture the relationship to the next stage.

Inbound content such as blogs, videos and online tools also extend the time of visit, and this is an important metric that contributes to your search-engine optimization effort.

Though content at your site is important for this reason and others, resist the urge to keep your content to yourself. Create partnerships with companies that will post your content or choose apps such as SlideShare, YouTube or edocr.com to syndicate your content beyond your own reach. Requiring a form submission to download your content will result in capturing some leads, but you will benefit far more from unrestricted content that is shared liberally.

3. Convey Urgency and Scarcity
Certainly not news to most seasoned marketers, urgency and exclusivity still motivate prospects to act more quickly. Procrastination is a sales killer, so text within your email reminding the recipient of how few widgets remain or how few days to buy the widget remains can dispel bouts of procrastination that grip many of us at one time or another.

Positioning your offer as time-sensitive, quantity-bound or event-based will boost your conversions, but lack of instructions for how to take advantage of your offer can easily negate the benefit gained.

4. Provide Instant Gratification
In email marketing, it’s key to first identify and then solve the customer’s problem—as quickly as possible. Your customers have come to expect and even demand instant gratification, not just in electronic platforms but physical as well. (It’s unbelievable that Amazon is currently testing same-day drone delivery and delivery before you’ve even ordered in order to meet such demands.) You must strive to deliver now.

In your emails, recognize that your clients want it now, and use words such as “instant,” “immediate,” and “now” as trigger words to put them in the buying mood. If your product doesn’t lend itself to being delivered via drone so they can get it now, offer an instant rebate or immediate download. By solving your customer’s problem more quickly than your competitor, you will be more likely to gain the coveted conversion.

As with urgency and scarcity, it’s imperative that you are clear on what steps must be taken in order to achieve instant gratification.

5. Test, Track and Tweak
Don’t guess at what it takes to reduce clicks and shorten your sales cycle, nor should you be a focus group of one. While your opinion about what works and what does not is important, you are not the customer. Use your opinion and expertise as the starting point for testing, but analytics must be used to prove or disprove your educated guesses.

As you begin to understand areas or components slowing your conversions, consider paths that provide information in a more compact and effective manner. Videos are a great solution and a preferred vehicle for many, but podcasts, self-running demos and other online options are also ideal for replacing overhead-heavy meetings, site visits and other person-to-person events.

There are myriad sales-funnel processes, but all can benefit from trusting relationships and consistent experiences. Your blast, drip and nurture emails should be professional, branded and graduated in order to nudge your constituents along. It’s important to remind your prospects why they should choose you—both explicitly and obscurely.