Happy Birthday, Mr. Consumer

You've got the data, use it. Birthdays provide all sorts of online marketing opportunities.

Most people, even those who claim otherwise, like birthdays. They provide an opportunity to take stock of one’s life, pat oneself on the back for accomplishments, and give thanks for years past.

Marketers get something else out of birthdays: an opportunity to reach out to current, former, and prospective consumers. The message might be one of congratulations and best wishes, but it’s also part of a personalization program. It reminds the customer that you (and your products) are there.

Birthdays are the interactive media equivalent of celebrating an anniversary or holiday by tucking a catalog clipping of the object of your desire inside a card.

Birthdays are perhaps most evident in e-mail marketing, as we often have access to birthdates through subscriber profile data. Given the challenge in e-mail campaigns of delivering a subject line and message that escape the delete button, birthdays open the door to a friendly, and usually welcome, correspondence.

Consumer birthdays are also an excuse to offer a one-time promotion, free trial, or product coupon designed to encourage brand loyalty or later transactions. Your local bar will pour you a free drink on your special day. Ice cream seller Baskin-Robbins will serve up a free scoop, and Applebee’s will give you a free dessert.

Through e-mail or a mobile message, hair stylists can offer a free bottle of conditioner on a customer’s next salon visit. An epicurean property might send a link to a recipe for a sumptuous birthday cake to prompt a site visit, while a lifestyle site might do the same by delivering a few teaser tips for planning the party. This sort of approach is popular among parenting sites as well. Consumers provide their children’s’ birth dates when opting in to receive age-specific baby and child development reports, and publishers like BabyCenter mark little ones’ birthdays with tips for pulling off a smooth celebration.

Regardless of the offer, companies make a point of making it relevant, particularly to the consumer’s special day, individual product or service interests, and time of year. Consumers love to be treated to something exceptional, and recognizing their birthday reminds them that you, as a company, care about them enough to gift them with something timely and appropriate.

The popularity of social networks creates an entirely new opportunity to leverage this landmark of the online loyalty strategy. As is the case with e-mail subscriptions, social networks can provide easy access to consumer birth dates. They’re displayed on Facebook friends’ News Feeds and prompt purchases of virtual birthday cake icons and animated candles. Few marketers have done much to segment their target social site audience in this manner to date, but why not utilize this channel to deliver a branded greeting for your target consumer and his online entourage to see?

Though these types of marketing initiatives usually revolve around the consumer’s birthday, some strategists have taken to referencing the birthdays of their clients, mascots, and even celebrities in their messaging. Over the past few months, we’ve seen e-mail celebrating the birthdays of political candidates like John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, which serve the underlying purpose of bolstering voter support and generating campaign contributions.

Online retailers can tap into celebrity birthdays when devising themes for their campaigns, particularly if those celebrities have been known to wear their products or brands. Hip fashion sites like Kitson and Intuition are best suited to delivering reports on how Paris Hilton spent her birthday and how you, too, could party like a star wearing one of their products.

The birthday-themed campaign has become so popular, it has even made its way into display ads and a promotion for Diet Dr Pepper soda. Recently, the Cadbury Schweppes-owned brand launched an expandable banner campaign highlighting the taste benefits of the product by associating it with a decadent cake. The ad was created in conjunction with rich media developer PointRoll and is designed to encourage interaction by inviting consumers to customize their special treat by decorating a birthday cake already adorned with the Dr Pepper logo. Users can add frosting, candles, and lettering and forward the virtual cake to a friend.

If you happen to be one of the few who would prefer not to recognize your own birthday with a celebration, the best distraction this year might be an online campaign surrounding someone else’s.

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