A Little TLC

Those of us who consult with businesses focus a great deal of time on improving customer experiences. In the Internet’s early days, it was common to find poorly constructed Web sites. Frequent errors included broken images, click paths to black holes, and dysfunctional transactional engines that left customers wondering whether they had completed a purchase.

This was described as poor customer experience. Though the owners of these Web sites paid millions in construction costs, visitors found the sites lacking. Yet many consumers were evangelical in their pursuit of Internet commerce. Many continued to muddle through a landscape of poorly designed user experiences to find brands that “got it,” brands that knew how to treat a customer properly.

Many enlightened brands had heavy experience in direct marketing. They knew a little about providing TLC — tender loving care. They understood the more comfortable their customers felt in the environment, the greater the likelihood of purchase on subsequent visits. Personalization, wizard technology, value-add services, product/service suggestions, online help, and 24-hour access all contributed to reinforcing the message that the merchant wanted to make the experience enjoyable to customers.

Those seeds planted several years ago have spread like wild flowers throughout the Internet. The user experience has dramatically improved in sites of all sizes and across every imaginable category. It was inevitable.

A recently published report from Jupiter Research (a Jupitermedia Corp. division) posits the online retail market grew over the last five years to reach over $53 billion in 2003. Although the demise of offline retailing was greatly exaggerated during the dot-com boom, online commerce has had a distinct, unprecedented affect on the way we purchase both online and off- (in-store, telephone, catalog, and mail order).

What Now?

The rise, affect, and roles of email and digital marketing are evolving. Despite spam making the user experience unpleasant at times, Internet loyalists continue to be evangelical about email and digital marketing. It’s driving a healthy percentage of online, as well as offline, sales.

Those who are passionate about email and digital marketing recognize both channels’ increasing influence, driven by a growing, more sophisticated customer population that also gets it. Increasingly, digital consumers will pursue relationships with brands that understand their needs and provide goods and services that match those needs.

Others will become victims of filtering, through the use of the delete key or advanced filtering technologies set and increasingly controlled by sophisticated digital consumers. These consumers are increasingly impatient; they understand they’re being marketed to, and they won’t tolerate misinformation or lack of relevance. They want relationships that are ongoing, timely, and meaningful. They want value.

As it pertains to email communications, TLC is gaining a new meaning: test, learn, and communicate.

Test

Many marketers are exploring the potential of email messaging and its ability to drive transactions to the Web as well as other channels. The smartest email teams pound out elaborate testing schemas that leverage customer segments and data attributes to gain insight into the right combinations of elements that provide greater results.

The testing phase involves an understanding of how to achieve greater open rates, CTRs, delivery rates, and so on. The smartest marketers know they need to tie Web and in-store analytics to their campaigns to understand the transaction path from email to cash register. This ability will define marketing and customer optimization in the years to come.

Learn

As marketers have a penchant for understanding their email/Internet customers’ behavior patterns, plenty of analytics companies can supply information. There are Web site tracking tools, click-stream path monitoring tools, and data mining tools. All provide everything a business owner or analyst needs to understand the nuances of what’s happening. Smart marketers use this analysis to build a case for better communications with their markets, organize customers into new segments, more effectively merchandise to these segments, and so on.

Know your customer is the mantra. The more you know, the better job you can do servicing them and increasing their business with you.

Communicate

Many marketers test and learn, but often they suffer from analysis paralysis. They perform multi-week or -month evaluation processes. Meanwhile, back at the customer experience ranch, the customer is trying to figure out when she’ll get a little care.

The key is tight integration between test, learn, and communicate. Marketers must anticipate potential responses to the variations of tested email communication strategies. Think ahead of time. Figure out the potential outcomes of tests based on the message’s objective.

How do you communicate with a customer if she:

  • Doesn’t open your email

  • Opens the email but doesn’t click
  • Opens the email and clicks but doesn’t transact
  • Opens the email, clicks, and transacts

Play out these scenarios before you mail. Build a strategy for each scenario that enables you to time and automate relevant responses to individual customers behaviors based on actions or lack of action. This creates a discipline within your company that ties all aspects of marketing together. Whether you use email or other digital marketing techniques, including affiliate marketing, keyword search, and Web analytics, stop the lag between the test and learn stages.

Learn more, anticipate response, and trigger communication based on this knowledge. Don’t blindly communicate when a customer has already provided valuable feedback. Earnings are increasingly defined by learnings. Marketers who can leverage them differentiate themselves in the marketplace, as those who understood the importance of the user experience did back in the day. All it takes is a little TLC.

Till next time,

Al D.

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