Marketing Success Is (Almost) All About the Data: Optimizing Customer Loyalty Behavior Initiatives

Much of what I’ve learned over the years about sales, marketing and customer service has to do with the critical importance of customer data, and how those data are converted to actionable insights. It’s how companies generate the right customer data, manage and share data the right way, and use it at the right time. It’s also how they use data to the best effect, to optimize loyalty and profitability, that makes them successful, or not, on an individual customer basis. Culture, leadership, and systems will facilitate effective information gathering, storage and application; and, CRM, CEM, ERP, or other acronyms notwithstanding, it’s impossible to be successful without having as much relevant anecdotal and dimensional content about customers as possible.

Much of what I’ve learned over the years about sales, marketing and customer service has to do with the critical importance of customer data, and how those data are converted to actionable insights. It’s how companies generate the right customer data, manage and share data the right way, and use it at the right time. It’s also how they use data to the best effect, to optimize loyalty and profitability, that makes them successful, or not, on an individual customer basis. Culture, leadership, and systems will facilitate effective information gathering, storage and application; and, CRM, CEM, ERP, or other acronyms notwithstanding, it’s impossible to be successful without having as much relevant anecdotal and dimensional content about customers as possible.

Bill Gates, often a prophet, said in “Business @ The Speed of Thought” (1999):

The best way to put distance between you and the crowd is to do an outstanding job with information. How you gather, manage and use information will determine whether you win or lose.

He might have added, had he really understood how to create and optimize customer loyalty, that what information, particularly customer-specific information, a company collects, and how they manage, share and apply it to the customer will determine how successful they can become.

One of my key sources for the uses of information gathered by customer clubs and, particularly, loyalty programs, for example, is friend and colleague, Brian Woolf (www.brianwoolf.com). Brian is president of the Retail Strategy Center, Inc., and a fountain of knowledge about how companies apply, and don’t apply, data generated through these programs.

In a Peppers & Rogers newsletter, for example, Don Peppers quoted Brian in his article, “The Secrets of Successful Loyalty Programs”:

Loyalty program success has less to do with the value of points or discounts to a customer, and much more to do with a company’s use of data mining to improve the customer experience. Top management hasn’t figured out what to do with all the information gleaned. You have all this information sitting in a database somewhere and no one taking advantage of it.

You need to mine the information to create not only relationships but also an optimum (purchasing) experience. The best loyalty programs use the customer data to improve not only promotions, but also store layout, pricing, cleanliness, check-out speed, etc.

Firms that do this are able to double their profits. When these elements are not addressed, all you’re doing is teaching the customer to seek out the lowest price.”

Tesco, one of the world’s largest retail chains, is using its customer information for a number of marketing and process initiatives. In his book “Loyalty Marketing: The Second Act,” Brian described how Tesco leveraged customer data drawn from its loyalty program to move into offering banking and financial services:

With information derived from its loyalty card and enriched by appended external demographic data, they can readily develop profiles of customers who would most likely be interested in basic banking services, as well as an array of related options, ranging from car loans and pension savings programs, to insurance for all types of needs—car, home, travel and even pets. It costs Tesco significantly less than half of what it costs a bank to acquire a financial services customer. Without a doubt, having detailed customer information gives them a competitive edge.

A few years ago, Tesco parlayed its offline customer data to also become the world’s largest online grocery and sundries home delivery service. Additionally, Tesco uses its customer data to target and segment communications to the millions of its loyalty program members by almost infinite demographic, purchase and lifestyle profiles. In his book, Brian notes that Tesco can create up to 150,000 variations of its promotion and reward statement mailings each quarter. These variations, as he says, ” … are both apparent and subtle, ranging from the product offer (i.e., which customers receive which offers at what price) to the content of the letter and the way it is personalized.”

Tesco is absolutely a company that knows how to leverage customer information. Its customer database contains not just demographic and lifestyle data, food spending in stores and on home delivery, but also specifics about its customers’ interest in, and use of, a diverse range of non-food products and services. As Bill Gates’ statement suggests, incisive and leveraged customer data has enabled Tesco to put distance between itself and its competitors, in both traditional and non-traditional retail markets.

An understanding of the real value and impact of customer information, and a disciplined plan for sharing and using the data to make a company more customer-centric, is needed more than ever. A good analogy, or model, for CEM and loyalty program effectiveness or ineffectiveness in building desired customer behavior, may be what can be termed the “car-fuel relationship.” A car, no matter how attractive, powerful and technically sophisticated, can’t go anywhere without fuel.

Not only that, to reach a desired destination, the car must have the right fuel for its engine, and in the right quantity. For customers, the car is CRM and its key data-related systems components (data gathering, integration, warehousing, mining and application).

The destination is optimized customer lifetime value and profitability. The fuel is the proper octane and amount of customer data.

Leading-edge companies are focusing on customer lifetime value as a destination. They are collecting the right data and using the right skills, processes, tools and customer information management technologies to make sure that key customer insights are available wherever they are needed, in all parts of the enterprise. Jeremy Braune, formerly head of customer experience at a leading U.K. consulting organization, has been quoted as saying: ” … organizations need to adopt a more structured and rigorous approach to development, based on a real understanding of what their customers actually want from them. The bottom line must always be to start with the basics of what is most important to the customer and build from there.”

I completely agree. It’s (almost) all about the data.

I Am Fascinating – Even My Hotel Thinks So

You know that age-old scenario with the man stuck in the labyrinth, who can’t find his way out? Well, there’s an online version of that—it’s the registration page that tells you there’s an error and you cannot continue, except the error is not with you, it’s with them

You know that age-old scenario with the man stuck in the labyrinth, who can’t find his way out? Well, there’s an online version of that—it’s the registration page that tells you there’s an error and you cannot continue, except the error is not with you, it’s with them.

Recently, I was shopping for a hotel in the San Diego area as I am planning to attend the DMA’s Annual Conference in October. Booking through the DMA’s site would ensure me a group rate, so I started perusing my options, sorting them by price.

One of the least expensive options was a hotel I had never heard of, but considering the property was only a 5 minute walk from the convention center, it was worth a closer look and the ad copy really intrigued me. Rather than simply extoling the hotel’s many features, I was given a peek at my life as a guest at their hotel: “When you are whisked up to your room, you’ll look out over the city, feeling like you belong here and that San Diego’s world is your oyster.” Sold! (Oh, and nice job getting me to picture myself as a happy customer.)

But then I began the booking process and a funny thing happened. After entering my guest details and confirming the rate and date, I was prompted to add my loyalty program ID number. Never one to pass up a deal, I clicked on the drop down menu to see if they would give me points with my favorite airline. Alas, my sole choice was the Kimpton InTouch loyalty program. Since I had never heard of it, I closed out of the menu. But it seems that InTouch was now selected, and I was unable to un-select it unless I put in my member number.

Abandon the transaction entirely? Another might have, but I—being the intrepid and inquisitive marketer that I am—jumped onto my second screen and researched the Kimpton InTouch program. (Did I mention I’m not one to pass up a deal?) It provided a simple registration form and the hope of instant use. But rather than getting a formulaic “welcome” email with membership number, a clever thing happened at the end of my registration process—a virtual membership card appeared on my screen, with my new InTouch loyalty number AND a downloadable V-card for Outlook. Genius!

In a split second, I downloaded and saved the V-card into my Outlook Contacts, and was delighted to know I would now have this number at my fingertips whenever booking with Kimpton again. And if the San Diego experience turned out to be as fabulous as promised, it was highly likely I would.

A simple copy from one screen and pasted to the other, and my booking process was back on track.

But what was equally interesting about the Kimpton InTouch registration form was this statement and request near the bottom of the form:

We love being fans and friends of our members. Please help us stay InTouch with you.

It then asked for my URL/Website/Blog and Twitter handle. Certainly this boutique hotel group was not planning to visit my company’s website and follow me on Twitter? Or was it?

It’s now a week later and Kimpton Hotels is not following me on Twitter, but for a brief moment I felt like the most interesting customer in the world. On the other hand, what is Kimpton planning to do with this information? Tweet me after my stay? Encourage me to tweet about my experience while a guest?

Check back with this column in October and find out. I’ll be impressed if Kimpton comes through with something that makes me feel like the most interesting customer in their world.

Loyalty Programs? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Loyalty Programs!

Without fear of (much) argument, it’s a fair statement to say that all companies want, and try to generate and achieve, optimum loyalty from their customer bases. They should want this, because study after study shows the financial rewards of having loyal customers. Some companies reach this goal through superior value delivery, built on quality products and services, and positive, consistent customer experiences. For the past several decades, many companies have relied on customer loyalty cards or programs, by which they can track purchase behavior and give rewards for repeat and volume buying activity.

Without fear of (much) argument, it’s a fair statement to say that all companies want, and try to generate and achieve, optimum loyalty from their customer bases. They should want this, because study after study shows the financial rewards of having loyal customers. Some companies reach this goal through superior value delivery, built on quality products and services, and positive, consistent customer experiences. For the past several decades, many companies have relied on customer loyalty cards or programs, by which they can track purchase behavior and give rewards for repeat and volume buying activity.

Customer loyalty programs are especially popular among retailers. During the years, retailers have found these programs to be powerful business tools within their highly competitive markets. But some retailers have completely disavowed loyalty programs, either never initiating them in the first place or canceling them, in favor of reduced pricing. In fact, this has become something of a trend. What’s behind it?

Let’s start with the biggest retailer—Walmart. The company has long claimed that a loyalty program isn’t needed because its prices are so low. Walmart believes that loyalty programs can, indeed, provide excellent information about customers who participate; however, as one Walmart executive put it: ” … some of the loyalty programs are very expensive, and we don’t think that serves everyday low cost and everyday low price.” Lower-than-competition everyday prices has been Walmart’s merchandising and marketing mantra since its inception. But, at least for groceries and sundry products, that often isn’t the case. Supermarket chains like Save-A-Lot and Aldi’s, neither of which has a loyalty program, will often beat Walmart’s item-for-item pricing by a significant margin. And other competitors can use their loyalty programs to selectively pick products, and individual customers, to offer pricing—which undermines Walmart.

As for generating customer purchase data, Walmart has a “scan & go” app for mobile devices, which allows customers to scan their own items as they shop; and this provides the company with valuable information on what customers are purchasing, the length of time they’re shopping in the store, and what offers and coupons might drive future purchases. Walmart uses additional methods of understanding individual customer purchases. One of these is Walmart credit cards. Another is reloadable MasterCard and Visa debit cards. A third is “Bluebird,” a prepaid debit card which functions as Walmart customers’ alternative to having a checking account, with which they can make deposits, pay bills—and shop at Walmart. Like Tesco is already doing in the U.K, Walmart has been considering development of its own bank, which would provide even more customer data.

Asda, a Walmart-owned supermarket chain in the U.K, also has no loyalty program. It’s the second-largest supermarket company, behind Tesco; and, as in the U.S., newer low-priced chains, such as Aldi, are actively competing with Asda. In place of a loyalty program, Asda believes it provides customers with what they want most, a “great multichannel retail experience.” The chain, according to executives, focuses on the key fundamentals: prices, quality, convenience and service. Alex Chrusczcz, Asda’s head of insights and pricing, offers two explanations of how the organization is endeavoring to build customer loyalty:

  • “Aspire to treat customers equally, or you’ll create a fractured brand and shopping experience. If you have someone paying one price and another customer with a coupon paying a different price, the perception of the brand is becoming fractured. Make sure it’s consistent.”
  • “Be pragmatic in terms of technology and analytics. They aren’t a silver bullet. Use these tools and combine them with the experience of your team.”

From my perspective, the second explanation is common sense; however, the first statement is really questionable—even counterintuitive, if a subordinating goal of loyalty behavior is to help drive customer-centricity. Simply put, all customers are not equal in value; and marketing strategies which treat them as such often create lower revenue.

In the U.S., regional supermarket chain Publix has no loyalty program. The company doesn’t have, as a result, the ability to track, at a household level, what customers are and aren’t purchasing in their stores. What Publix does, instead of loyalty cards, is try different alternative approaches to build sales. One of these, for example, was to test a program where shoppers could set up an online account where they could digitally clip coupons; and then, in the Publix store, the discounts they’d set up online could be automatically applied by typing in their phone numbers. Publix also has a BOGO program for their own brands, and accepts competitors’ coupons in their stores.

Some retailers do more than emphasize the sales and service fundamentals. They build genuine passion for, and bonding with, the brand by creating a more human, emotional connection. And, though there are few organizations like this, retailers such as Trader Joe’s are the exception that proves the rule. Trader Joe’s has no customer loyalty program. What they have is enthusiasm, achieved through differentiated, every-changing customer experiences, enhanced by upbeat, helpful employees. This has enabled Trader Joe’s to generate sales per square foot that are double the sales per square foot of Whole Foods. So, another way of stating that Trader Joe’s creates loyalty behavior without a program is to say: The shopping experience is, defacto, the loyalty program.

Now, we come to retailers which had customer loyalty programs, usually of long-standing, and elected to discontinue them. Actually, much of this has been done by one organization, Cerberus Capital Group, the early 2013 purchaser of multiple regional retail supermarket chains from Supervalu (Shaw’s, Acme, Star, Albertson’s and Jewel-Osco). Calling the new positioning “card-free savings,” and reflective of the first strategy stated above by Asda, each of the chains issued statements with themes like “We want buying to be simple for all, so that every (name of company) customer gets the same price whether a loyalty card has been used or not.” Additionally, and again like Asda, these chains have said they will go back to the basics: clean stores, well-stocked shelves, reduced checkout time, clearly marked sale items and creation of a more customer-focused culture. Some of their executives have also theorized that the chains will now adopt a more local-level approach, rather than customer-level, to their decision-making, and that individual store managers will now be more actively involved in driving successful performance.

So, the chains acquired by Cerberus appear to believe that “sunsetting,” or eliminating these programs, is a calculated risk and that they would still find good ways of providing value to retain more loyal customers, as well as incentives for those with the potential to move from purchase infrequency. Most analysts, however, felt that Cerberus eliminated the programs largely because the chains they purchased were either not mining card data, or not effectively analyzing and applying this material for better marketing and merchandising, thus making the loyalty systems too expensive to maintain.

Cerberus has entered into takeover discussions with California-based Safeway, which also owns Vons and Pavilion. If this sale takes place, it’s a good bet that these chains will also drop their reward cards, because Cerberus-owned supermarkets clearly don’t need, or want, no stinkin’ loyalty programs.

Why SMS Will Be Your Mobile Workhorse and 5 Ideas to Get You Started

We’ve talked about the importance of a mobile-friendly Web presence and mobile-optimized email for your small business. But there is one mobile tool that your small business should be leveraging that will be a key puzzle piece to the success of your mobile strategy. Some might argue that SMS is the most effective mobile channel that exists, when it comes to ROI.

We’ve talked about the importance of a mobile-friendly Web presence and mobile-optimized email for your small business. But there is one mobile tool that your small business should be leveraging that will be a key puzzle piece to the success of your mobile strategy.

Some might argue that SMS is the most effective mobile channel that exists, when it comes to ROI.

There is a reason it continues to be the workhorse within the mobile strategies of brands like Coca-Cola, Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, Target, jcpenney and many more.

5 reasons SMS will be the workhorse in your mobile strategy.

Instant Deliverability: SMS messages offer one of the most immediate marketing channels for businesses. More than 97 percent of messages are read within four minutes of receipt. So if you have a message that is time sensitive, there is no better way to connect with your customer.

Everyone’s Reachable: Nearly 100 percent of the handsets on the market can send and receive text messages. I don’t care that we’ve surpassed 50 percent smartphone penetration in the USA. I don’t care that that will continue to grow. You’re missing out on 40 percent to 50 percent of your audience right now by catering to smartphone-only customers.

Just because my 65-year-old dad has an iPhone now doesn’t mean he will use it the way I do. But you know what … he sure sends a whole lot more text messages to me.

Highest-Possible Visibility: Remember how I said that 97 percent of SMS messages are read within four minutes? Well, that means that 97 percent of your SMS messages are being read—period. When was the last time your email open rate was over 90 percent? I’ll let you figure that one out on your own.

Now I’m not saying “Stop using email.” Email is super powerful and has its place. But SMS offers you a new, quick, high-converting way to connect with your customers that no channel can match.

Highly Targeted: Because buying lists is a no-no when it comes to SMS, you have to build your database of loyal customers. Being a permission-based marketing vehicle, your customers have to opt in to receiving these messages from you.

Yes, that means they essentially raised their hands and said, “I’d like you to connect with me on my most personal device.” The next best thing in my mind is if your customer invites you over for dinner. Mmmmm …

Cost Effective, Considering the Return: For all you marketing folk, this means Return on Investment (ROI).

SMS is way more affordable than you think. Many of you still spend a good part of your budget on direct mail. Again, it has its place in your marketing mix. But look at some of the costs associated with direct mail: You have postage, shipping, mailing lists, printing, packaging/fulfillment etc.

Direct mail depends on your volume. But, at the end of the day, you could be spending 20 cents to more than a dollar per piece. SMS could cost you pennies per message.

As a small business, a Yellow Pages ad could cost you up to $4,000 per year. Yes, people (especially older demographics) do still reach for their Yellow Pages when they need a business in a hurry, but it offers little to no engagement or tracking.

Depending on the size of your small businesses, incorporating SMS into your monthly budget could run you $25 to a few hundred bucks a month. The level of return will far outweigh your older, traditional media vehicles.

OK, so you’re sold on adding mobile to your marketing mix. Congratulations, it was a wise decision, trust me.

Here are 5 ideas for you to get started with SMS this year.

Mobilize Your Loyalty Program: Begin building your list of mobile numbers and send timely, relevant messaging to your customers. This can include special mobile-only offers, promotion opportunities, sales, new product or service offerings.

The more you can personalize these messages, the better. Many of you may already have some sort of loyalty program in place. I’m not asking you to do something totally new. Just add SMS as a component of the loyalty program to bring loyal customers back with relevant, high-value messaging.

Mobilize Your Coupons: Target, jcpenney and Bed Bath & Beyond are great examples of this. Each and every week, these businesses send mobile coupons to their mobile databases. It’s fast, cost effective and convenient for the customers who prefer to receive these offers to their phones. They just bring their phones to the store and redeem their mobile coupons at the point of purchase.

Eliminate No-Shows: Does your businesses depend on filling appointment slots? Doctors, Lawyers, Salons, etc. rely on filling appointments, but what happens when your customer misses an appointment?

Let me guess, you don’t charge for no-shows? Some estimates state that missed appointments for a single physician can be as much as $150,000 in lost revenue and additional labor costs. Multi-physician offices are even more drastic, estimating no-shows in a single year resulting in losses of over $1 million.

So how can SMS eliminate no-shows?

Why not send an appointment reminder via SMS within an hour or two prior to the appointment? Include a number for those who have to cancel. Better yet, let them reply to the message so that it updates your appointment software.

Oh no, someone canceled! Send out a message to your database to fill that last-minute appointment.

If you’re a salon, restaurant or massage therapist, you can send a message to your customer SMS list offering a savings opportunity to the one that fills that appointment slot.

Add SMS and stop losing money due to no-shows.

Engage Customers With Giveaways: Sweepstakes and giveaways have been great ways to build your SMS list in the early stages.

Offer up one big prize and let your customers text in to enter. Give away a monthly prize and give customers a reason to stay on your list.

Not only do sweepstakes entice customers to opt-in, but everyone loves winning prizes. Is giving away one or two free services a month worth generating hundreds of new opt-ins to communicate with moving forward?

Learn About Your Customers With Polls and Surveys: Did one of your loyal customers just purchase from you? A quick SMS message could let them provide valuable feedback on their experience.

SMS is a two-way interactive tool that lets customers provide feedback just by replying to your messages.

Are you thinking about releasing a new product or service? Are you a restaurant and looking to add a new menu item? Poll your audience to get their feedback to help make smarter decisions.

Bonus point: Tie a sweepstakes to your survey and award a lucky customer with a prize of some sort to encourage participation.

Now it’s on you.

These are just a few ways you could quickly begin to incorporate SMS marketing into your business. It’s important to remember that SMS without a strategy or goal will lead to poor results.

Make sure you understand why you’re adding SMS and determine measurements for success to continually optimize your efforts.

The trick is to not re-invent the wheel. You should look to mobilize initiatives you already have in place.

You don’t need to create a separate marketing initiative. You’re already doing what you need to do. Now mobilize it.

What’s On a Retail CMO’s To-Do List?

Focusing on their customers and setting the right expectations for their CEO when it comes to marketing plans are just two of the many priorities chief marketing officers at retail companies are putting on their to-do lists for the remainder of 2011.

Focusing on their customers and setting the right expectations for their CEO when it comes to marketing plans are just two of the many priorities chief marketing officers at retail companies are putting on their to-do lists for the remainder of 2011.

This information was gleaned from a session titled “CMO/SVP Panel: Uncovering a CMO’s To-Do List” at eTail 2011 in Boston this week. Kevin Conway, global director of consumer brands at Savvis; Matt Corey, chief marketing officer of Golfsmith; Lou Weiss, chief marketing officer of The Vitamin Shoppe; Bill Wood, vice president and chief information officer at Brookstone; and Jim Wright, senior vice president of e-commerce and customer marketing at Express, discussed their remainder-of-2011 goals and priorities.

“We’re focused on four specific pillars right now,” said Express’ Wright. “Driving e-commerce, growing the international side of our business, improving our brand for existing stores and opening more stores across the U.S.”

In addition, Wright said he’s focusing on how to integrate the Express brand across channels, optimizing return on investment from marketing programs, and understanding how Express customers shop in-store and applying that information to mobile applications.

“The customer has more control than ever before,” Wright said. “We have to conduct focus groups, ask them what they want from their experience with us, then make those changes.”

Most of the time, Express customers want their shopping experience to be like what they get on Amazon.com. The good news is that “they’re willing to get that experience if they give a little,” Wright said.

Focusing on the customer is also at the top of Brookstone’s Bill Wood’s to-do list. “If we understand our customers better, we’ll understand how to speak with them,” he said. “Two-way communication is important.”

In addition, Brookstone has “eight to 10 initiatives on our plate right now for our website, including video,” Wood said.

For Matt Corey of Golfsmith, setting the right customer expectations about the brand’s marketing plans is top of mind. “All CEOs today are asking their CMOs, ‘What’s the value of a customer on Facebook?’ We just say we’re going to test it, measure it and then decide.”

When discussing marketing programs with your CEO, use “Peter Rabbitt English,” Corey said. This is his term for using basic, plain speech with them. “Don’t use terms they don’t understand. Instead, tell a story.”

Of course, focusing on the customer is also key for Golfsmith. “We have a great online community called the 19th Hole that we turn to all the time for insight,” Corey said. “We ask them about anything from brand messaging to store experiences to taglines. What do they like? What don’t they like?”

What’s more, Corey added, “these types of communities are cool and cost effective. We’re spending less than $75,000 for an entire year to find out what our customers want. That’s a lot less than the cost of small focus groups.”

For Vitamin Shoppe’s Lou Weiss, his primary focus is on the brand’s already successful loyalty program.

“Now we’re trying to figure out how to evolve our loyalty program by integrating it with our social programs, stores and website,” Weiss said.

Another focus? Growing The Vitamin Shoppe’s marketing team. “We’re looking for experts in interactive and social marketing,” he told the audience.

For Kevin Conway of Savvis, his current focus is on cloud computing. “We’re working with several software vendors on putting their applications in our cloud,” he said. “Once in the cloud, the applications can be turned on and off easily to accelerate your business.”

What are some of your 2011 end-of-year priorities? Let me know by posting a comment below.

Stephanie Miller’s Engagement Matters: Email Storytelling Sells

Combat the fatigue from crowded inboxes by embracing the role of storyteller. Telling a story, rather than just announcing a fact or blasting out an announcement, is a more engaging way to share information. The storytelling approach weaves a relationship through a cadence of touchpoints. Any nurturing or loyalty program is built on the same concept, and many B-to-B marketers are very good at telling stories to move prospects through a buying process.

Gone are the days of the passive email subscriber. Consumers and business professionals tire easily when publishers and marketers broadcast to them. It’s the online equivalent of shouting. Your customers and readers want meaningful conversations — and they know they have other options if you don’t deliver.

Combat the fatigue from crowded inboxes by embracing the role of storyteller. Telling a story, rather than just announcing a fact or blasting out an announcement, is a more engaging way to share information. The storytelling approach weaves a relationship through a cadence of touchpoints. This isn’t complex. Any nurturing or loyalty program is built on the same concept, and many B-to-B marketers are very good at telling stories to move prospects through a buying process.

It’s simply a series of stories about use cases, cool new features and real-life implementation of your editorial, products and services. So invite your subscribers to the proverbial campfire and build their anticipation with a question, “How can I help you today?” Email marketing is great for providing the answer.

Invite subscribers on a story journey
Instead of sending a generic newsletter or “special offers,” invite website visitors to accept a two to five message email series on a particular topic. Make it about how your products, services or content will help them: “Five ways to be beautiful this summer,” “Three strategies for impressing your boss,” “Doctor’s advice on buying contact lenses online,” “Ten things your CEO wants you to know,” “Five great summer games for kids under 10.”

Make it easy to sign up by putting invitations in prominent locations on pages that have related content. And be sure permission is clear. If the offer is just for two to five email messages over the same number of weeks or days, then say so. You’ll likely find a higher sign-up rate and higher response and engagement because the content is so targeted. If you’re also signing them up for your ongoing e-newsletter, be clear about that. There’s no reason you can’t encourage a further subscription after you’ve delivered the series, too. Earn their trust first, then sell. Consider the following strategies:

  • Make your story interactive.
  • Tap the socially connected nature of today’s digital experience.
  • Integrate opportunities for subscribers to share with their social networks or forward to others.
  • Invite subscribers to take a poll or survey or give you feedback.
  • Offer a page where subscribers can upload their own stories or photos, and then share that user-generated content back to the group in your series.
  • Ensure your customer service team monitors these pages so that you can quickly respond to any questions or direct prospects to your sales team or e-commerce site.

Why does it work? An email series strategy is based on a fundamental truth of marketing: Provide something of value and customers will continue to engage. A series makes it easy for you to customize messages to the interests of subscribers at that moment. The topic is top of mind for them, and that creates selling and relationship opportunities for you.

Another benefit is that when your email messages are more relevant, you won’t have as many people clicking the “Report Spam” button, which registers as a complaint at internet service providers like Yahoo or Gmail. Even a small number of complaints can result in a poor sender reputation and a block on all your messages. Make even some of your messages more relevant, and the response rates for all your messages will go up and complaints will go down.

For content, consider the following four options:

1. Make it easy to learn more. Offer website visitors a two- to three-part email series rather than a whitepaper. Most downloaded content never actually gets opened or read. Once a whitepaper is downloaded and saved, it’s out of mind. An email series forces marketers to package up content in bite-sized pieces (you can always link to more detail on your website), and gives them several opportunities over a few weeks to engage. Advertising CPMs for these targeted messages can be at a premium, as well.

2. Comparison shopping. Advertisers know that readers are researching and want publishers to help them shorten sales cycles. Use a series of email messages to help subscribers compare competitive sets — the more honest/nonadvertorial you are, the longer they stay on your site! — find testimonials and bloggers, and make a strong business case.

3. Move free-trial subscribers to paid circulation. A series can give prospects confidence in your content or technology. Help them actually use your service during the trial — help them find the best reviews or product feature comparisons, or let them download tools that help them forecast productivity, revenue or cost savings as a result of making a decision to buy. Test if increasing incentives as prospects move through the cycle helps or hurts your conversion (and margin).

4. Educate. Send one great idea each week, and include ways to practice or implement. The next week, ask for input or a story about how that idea worked or didn’t work. Then, the next day, send the next idea. This interactive cadence will build value for subscribers and let them engage repeatedly over time.

Storytelling lets you retain control over the content while giving subscribers the freedom, choice and interactivity they crave. Successful email marketing is built on a very simple concept: Give subscribers what they want, and they’ll give you what you want. Subscribers want you to help them. When you do, they’ll reward you with higher response and sales, positive buzz and sharing, and stronger brand loyalty.

Let me know what you think by sharing any ideas or comments below.