One Saturday morning, I was contacted three times by the long distance company at my summer place. Just after 8:00 a.m., Fraud Control rang. They thought someone had ripped me off for a call to London a month back. Unable to reach me earlier, they suspended my service to be on the safe side. I verified the $100-plus call, but the operator could not restore my service. The morning mail revealed Account Services cancelled my service because my 10-plus year account was in arrears over two billing periods by $9. Before I could finish the breakfast dishes, a call center operator offered me $50 to sign up for the company’s long distance service. Ring-a-ling!! “Can I speak to your mommy, please?”
Such stories of mismatched messages in crisscrossing channels are commonplace and predate the Internet, although the diffusion of email and the advent of personalizable Web sites have made the challenge more complex. Just so, because the Internet is just another channel in the marketing mix; digital services units encounter the challenges of multichannel communications most directly and immediately at the big agencies.
Clients want this matter addressed. They hire big agencies precisely to have at their disposal all the disciplines and channels. Better alignment of contact streams and the data they generate would reduce wasted costs (like those incurred with me last weekend). It would also fuel revenue growth. According to Jupiter Media Metrix research from 2000 and 2001, customers who communicate using two or more channels typically spend three times more than less-connected individuals.
One approach to orchestrating communications across channels is CRM. This emergent business competence combines data from customer contacts in multiple channels into 360-degree profiles, then uses those profiles to guide communications in all those channels. CRM solutions (full disclosure: my employer offers them through a subsidiary) can pay off, but it’s not the only way we have to achieve a consistent conversation with a customer across channels.
Another approach is to let the customer do it. As a matter of plain fact, a lot of customers are already doing it. According to the Institute for the Future, almost half the U.S. population is already comfortable using two or more channels — mail, phone, catalog, email, and Web sites in addition to visiting a store or branch — in their business dealings. They increasingly expect a company’s systems and processes to recognize them across multiple channels and diverse contact streams. In short, multichannel communications is already happening today at most companies — it’s just happening more often to companies rather than by them.
Don’t fight it. Go with this flow, Grasshopper. Use communications judo. Invite and yield to the customer’s momentum with options that enable her needs and her decisions to find, select, use, and reveal the optimum combination of channels. This “smart submission” is not an enterprisewide systems approach. It’s a method for creating instances that yield measurable results in the short term, the accumulation of which might prove a step-by-step approach for the future.
Here are the aggressive limits used to design certain pilot projects underway today:
- Customer segment. Identify one customer segment actively trying to contact the company. Not the most profitable or the most loyal, but a segment whose intentionality, energy, needs, and decisions of their purposeful pursuit can be channeled, quite literally.
- Channels. Select three channels at most. Then, either survey the segments or monitor their behavior to find out which tasks they prefer to accomplish in which channels.
- Cross-channel benefits. Define or devise, then deliver, some value for different channel combinations. For example, enable tasks specific to one channel and link to benefits in another. Test the benefits and deploy only those that promise superior return.
- Communications content. Limit messaging to cross-channel benefits. Craft consistent “triggers” for all channels.
The method is more precise in practice. Overall, its thrust is to pare down the possible into the practical with limits, tests, and goals and to allow the user’s intentionality to drive and shape the result. This isn’t an infrastructure solution such as CRM; it’s just a method for carving out multichannel experiences: specific channel combinations that facilitate the actual exchange of value between companies and customers, one step at a time on a pay-as-you-go basis.
At the big agencies, digital services units either align with or compete against their sister marketing disciplines for client spending. They face the multichannel challenge every day. In that context, agency digital units are just another channel. The multiple-channel approach outlined above has no necessary connection to the digital world. Still, it does echo many of its most basic principles: It harnesses the distribution of intelligence to end users; it relies on devising real value for them via their empowerment; it cultivates communications streams that flow from the customer inward to the company; and it lets the user and her usage and behavior determine longevity.
The digital world is more than producing HTML assets and C++ code, more than devising permissioned email and online sweepstakes. It includes ways of understanding and using the novel dynamics of a new communications environment. Long ago, the founder of the firm where I work centered our professional vision in the commitment to making the customer the “hero” of communications. Today, the Internet is making that possible in ways he could not have imagined — and we are just beginning to explore.
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