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7 ways you're abusing your best customers

7 ways you're abusing your best customers Jim Nichols

Digital is amazing in part because of its ability to cultivate closer relationships with our best users. But it can also be an abusive instrument in the wrong hands. The power of digital tools can just as easily weaken consumer relationships when we put consumers second and our own antiquated ideas of push marketing first.

Often it seems that our best customers -- the ones who seek out closer relationships -- are the ones that suffer most. They see their permission and enthusiasm met with tactics that are at once ham fisted and disrespectful. It's only natural that faced with such bad behaviors, consumers learn not to trust those brands again. Here's my list of six common abuses that can only serve to drive more and more customers to want a divorce.

Slash-and-burn retargeting
About a month ago, I visited the website of my car company to get some information on a new model. Since then I have been barraged with multiple banners on virtually every web page I visit. I was on a reference site recently and got a 728, two towers, two big squares, and a button hawking the newest model -- on a single page.

I am not at all opposed to retargeting, but practitioners need to consider the user experience before they open all of the floodgates. Surely six units on a page is a scosh past the point of diminishing returns. Does my car company know this is happening? I suspect not. It's too ridiculous to approve -- which means it is important to ensure your vendors are just as anxious to provide a decent experience as they are to burn through your impression count. Most are, but more than a few aren't.

While the world of CRM email has certainly grown up a lot over the past several years, there are still thousands of email relationship programs tailored to delivering as many emails as they can, staying just a hair short of the back-break frequency straw that'll spike opt-outs.

A consumer who signed up for messages with certain expectations about frequency is bound to be disappointed if you over-email. By granting permission for you to deliver messages to them, they are demonstrating a level of trust that is something to be valued. Abuse of that trust builds ill will.

There's a corollary to this. Underemailing can be just as disappointing. There are thousands of websites collecting emails that they never actually use.

Case in point: About two years ago I worked with a client that had been collecting emails since 1997, but no one knew where the data went -- no one in marketing, anyway. When the marketing team finally spoke with IT, it seemed that there were almost a million records -- but virtually all too old to use given the CAN-SPAM regulations. I'd call that a "stupidtunity."

When you tell someone that they will receive messages and they don't, you've abused their goodwill and severely limited the relationship-building opportunity.

Most studies show that loyalists are disproportionately represented on your email list. By doing what you say you will, you further the trust connection. Make the email frequency of your program clear and deliver on that expectation.

Most CRM emails I get look more like print ads than letters, and that's disappointing because it is not in my nature -- or anyone else's nature, for that matter -- to seek print ads in our inboxes. They (i.e., we) want rich information delivered in a relevant and entertaining way.

The decision to take the information-rich road for CRM often frightens brands because it means that decent content needs to get produced and delivered with reasonable frequency. Many brands I have worked with have initially believed that there was very little to say to their users -- that their products were too low involvement to enable a decent flow of interesting information.

But the consumer who signs up for a program is asking for information about your category and product. You might not think it's all that interesting, but clearly they do. These people care enough to look forward to receiving messages from you. If we take a step back and ask how our product can provide value and entertainment to the user, we can define a content calendar with richness and appeal.

Let's say you are in a fight and have two people standing on either side of you. One has your back and is throwing savage kicks and ninja stars at your foes. The other is just standing there. Not hitting you, but not coming to your aid either. Which one do you make sure you keep happy? I'm guessing you'd focus your energies on your wing person versus the bystander.

And yet, when we offer trial discounts for "new customers only," we favor the bystander over our allies. Now, I totally understand the whys of trial offers as a means of growing a brand. But their success and value is compromised in a world of perfect information. When a brand loyalist actually knows that you are favoring others over them, they are bound to be disappointed.

I'm not suggesting that you never do trial offers, but rather that any such offers should be accompanied with special efforts tailored to your loyalists. Perhaps you could offer a deal on multiple purchases, a special item, advanced notice -- something.

People use social media to say good and bad things about our brands. In my experience, most brands are very happy to be public in thanking people for props. But when people are critical, those same brands try to take the discussion "offline." The disappointed person makes a tweet, and the company tells them to contact an email address or only send direct messages.

Now why would a brand do this? Call me cynical, but I am guessing it's not because they don't want to be seen delighting consumers. Rather, taking a discussion offline is rooted in a desire to limit the damage. And on a deeper level, the decision indicates a strong possibility that the company's response to the problem won't be at all delightful.

Oddly, many such companies simultaneously spend tremendous time and resources delivering a stream of positive social content from the CEO or whomever. But placing the CEO's thoughts before the consumer's concerns is bad business.

Take care of your customers the right way, and in public view.

The collection of anonymous data has driven remarkable improvements in ad effectiveness -- improvements that are essential to paying for a free internet. But to collect and use data properly requires that we fully disclose to consumers what we do with their information and ultimately offer them a choice.

I'm not talking about burying the details in obtuse language in a lengthy privacy policy. Rather, let's make it easy for them to understand what information we collect and how we want to use it.

You can tell me that you view consumer data as your property, and provide the standard bland assurances that you don't abuse it. But no one cares or should care about your opinion in this instance. The only opinion that matters here is the consumer's. Our relationship with consumers is an unequal one. They bless us with their custom; we need to work hard to deserve it.

The cross-industry coalition's "Power i" program gives us an opportunity to be clear and transparent; the relatively low level of brand compliance thus far should embarrass us all. Someday soon, a brand's lack of compliance might drive more than a few loyal users to walk away from companies that violate their trust -- and toward those that make their data usage policies and behaviors clear.

I love the website Consumerist because it focuses on pointing out both the magnificent things companies do and the really rotten ones as well. And how can you go wrong with a site that offers Golden Poo Awards for bad corporate citizens? It is a massive consumer advocacy channel that delivers remarkable results because of its million-candlepower spotlight.

Almost invariably, the offending company sends a form email to the complainant, assuring them that ABC Corp. takes his or her problem very seriously. Of course, if the company were actually taking the problem very seriously, it wouldn't be sending a form letter.

Words matter, but deeds matter more. By giving a customer service team broad powers to solve problems instead of simply acknowledging them, a company earns trust. And more often than not, it gets kudos from the person it has helped. Without such brand commitment to pleasing users, the mock soothing emails only serve to anger users and make them feel foolish for having once held positive feelings for the brand.

No company's behavior is perfect. The wonderful thing is that consumers don't expect it to be. What they really want are relationships with their favorite brands that are respectful and pleasant. We all need to do our best to be worthy of their trust.

Our entire field is built on the idea that our offerings are more than what is in the box. By making our digital communications positive experiences, we demonstrate our worthiness for the trust consumers bestow.

Jim Nichols is senior partner at Catalyst: SF.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Homepage image sourced from iStockPhoto

Jim Nichols is VP of Marketing for Apsalar. Jim has 20+ years experience in over 80 different categories, including developing successful positioning and go-to-market plans for more than 40 adtech and martech companies. He joins Apsalar after...

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Commenter: Ashley Edwards

2011, November 21

Good article, Jim. Don't necessarily agree with your perspective on the social piece, but I certainly understand where you're coming from.