4 simple steps to improve consumer engagement

Brands live and die by their ability to understand and target consumer behaviors. When digital marketing strategies align with consumer online shopping behaviors, it's a major accomplishment for brands eager to capture their share of the digital marketplace.

The catch is that marketers often base digital spend on assumptions and perceived consumer behavior rather than the actual ways consumers interact with brands online. As a result, investments designed to improve consumer engagement -- email promotions, social media interactions, mobile spend -- frequently miss the mark, compromising the brand's ability to connect with the right consumers at the right times.

4 simple steps to improve consumer engagement

The misalignment of brands and consumers is even more relevant during the holiday shopping season. For instance, a recent study showed that half of consumers are influenced by social media when making online purchases, but only 8 percent of Facebook campaigns and 4 percent of Twitter campaigns focus on money-saving promotions. Unless big brands effectively calibrate their marketing strategies to align with actual consumer behaviors, it's unlikely that they will be able to achieve holiday sales targets -- not to mention sales goals for the rest of the year.

Understand shifting consumer behavior

Improving consumer engagement begins with an understanding of consumer behavior, especially when it comes to email promotions that have been designed to motivate specific actions around the holidays.

According to the same research report, seven out of 10 consumers plan to spend as much or more this holiday season than they did in 2011. Much of this spending will occur online, with an impressive 97 percent of respondents indicating that they shop online at least several times a year.

The timing of online shopping and purchasing behaviors is particularly relevant to multichannel brands. The research showed that 47 percent of online shoppers with a day-of-the-week preference make purchases between Monday and Wednesday. Furthermore, almost 40 percent of shoppers make purchases between the hours of 6:00 and 10:00 p.m. This stands in sharp contrast to brick-and-mortar shoppers, 79 percent of whom make purchases on weekends, with most preferring midday and evening hours.

Yet, most retailers are missing opportunities to engage consumers during peak shopping hours. For example, only 5 percent of brand email campaigns are deployed during peak online shopping hours -- most are sent early in the morning, when consumers are least likely to shop.

Tips for improving consumer engagement

High levels of consumer engagement are the product of comprehensive and consistent marketing strategies; however, in the short term, there are at least four things brands can do to improve their ability to engage consumers online during the holiday retail season and throughout the year.

Start early: Consumers begin holiday shopping activities long before many brands launch their online marketing campaigns. Approximately half of all consumers surveyed start shopping for the holiday season between October 1 and November 30. Email promotions including free shipping, discounts, and exclusive offers are a significant driver of purchase decisions.

Segment your audience: To avoid message fatigue, brands need to segment their audiences, targeting early shoppers with more frequent and urgent messaging (i.e. appealing offers with explicit deadlines) and connecting with last-minute shoppers through special offers.

Consider timing: Brands need to do a better job releasing email promotions and other messaging during times when consumers are most likely to be shopping online. Rather than releasing promotional materials when it's most convenient for the brand (late night or early morning), retailers need to understand their customers' buying patterns and create a system that enables them to time the release of promotional content during peak shopping hours.

Leverage mobile: The mobile channel has become a major factor in holiday marketing campaigns. Instead of using mobile devices to make direct purchases, consumers use mobile technology to comparison shop. Sixty-two percent of mobile users have used smartphones and other devices to compare online prices to in-store prices. Similarly, 64 percent of users have used their device to visit a company website for product information and other content. To reach these consumers, brands need to not only leverage mobile-optimized websites and apps, but also email promotions that enable customers to view messaging and interact with the brand on mobile platforms.

Consumer engagement is a year-round marketing target. But brands that are successful in improving engagement during the all-important holiday retail season are inevitably more successful at engaging consumers the rest of the year. By intentionally aligning digital channel promotions with real-world consumer behaviors, retail brands can dramatically improve ROI and create marketing strategies that deliver results far beyond this year's holiday season.

Michael Fisher is president at Yesmail Interactive.

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