Is Email Marketing About Relationships or Affinities?

As I sat through the very informative ClickZ B2C Email Marketing Strategies conference in Long Beach, Calif., last week, one question kept nagging at me: What exactly is a “relationship”?

Now, before you start wondering about my personal life (something that often happens, believe me!), let me set things straight by telling you that I do know what a relationship between two human beings entails. It involves two people who share common interests, goals, and values; who like to talk to one another; and who like to be with each other. Having a relationship with someone means having a connection that binds you and that is (hopefully) beneficial to both of you. Relationships are good things.

So, as I heard folks talking about building relationships with their customers via email, I started to think about what companies I had relationships with. And guess what? I couldn’t think of a single one.

Sure, there are companies that I like doing business with. And the amount of snail mail I’ve been receiving from my car dealership almost edges into the relationship range. But as far as companies that I feel a personal connection to, companies I can’t wait to hear from, or companies that I like to talk to, I can’t think of a single one.

Am I just antisocial? I don’t think so. I’d bet a slab o’ turkey (I’m trying to be seasonal… work with me here) that there aren’t many companies that you feel warm, fuzzy, relationship-type attachments to.

Why? Because relationships can’t happen between human beings and impersonal organizations. We’re just not wired that way. We form relationships with people, not institutions. So why are we constantly working toward forming relationships with our customers, betting the farm on various types of personalization and relationship marketing? Do our customers even want to have relationships with us at all?

It all comes down to definitions. Humans form relationships with other humans. But people can feel an intense “affinity” to organizations and institutions. Knowing the difference is one way to build customer loyalty and repeat business.

First of all, let’s talk about relationships. While it may be wrong to assume that people can form relationships with companies, it definitely isn’t wrong to assume that people can form relationships with other people at companies that they do business with. If you’re in a service business and have clients, you know how important your personal relationships with those clients can be to the business. Ditto if you’re in the type of sales that calls for long sales cycles and personal contact. And you don’t build those relationships by sending emails to your whole list of contacts in the “Dear [insert name here”” style. You build them by starting slowly, finding common ground, alternating contacts, and working toward a common goal that benefits both of you. You form an attachment, a relationship. While you might be serving as an agent of your company, the connection that your customer has with your company is through you personally.

Affinity, on the other hand, usually involves a lot more impersonal, one-way contact that centers on experience. The entertainment and sports industries typically have a strong affinity following: People are nuts about their favorite team, band, movie, author, or game. Fan sites pop up with no prompting from the organizations. A constant back-channel “buzz” about the organization permeates fan networks via email, instant messaging, and chat. Even though there’s rarely a relationship between individual members of the organization and the customers, the customers nonetheless maintain a very strong affinity for the organization.

But it’s not only sports figures, celebrities, and game characters that can inspire rabid affinity: Some companies such as Sony, BMW, Harley-Davidson, Southwest Airlines, Kosmo Systems, Chick-fil-A., FedEx, and also have legions of fans with close attachments and long-term loyalties.

So what does this difference between building relationships and building affinity have to do with us marketers, especially on the web? Basically, it means that if we want to build customer loyalty, we need to look at ways of building affinity, not at rules for building relationships. Unless you’re willing to dedicate people to maintain a connection with a customer via email or phone, you’re not going to build a relationship with that customer. However, if you want to build loyalty toward your company and affinity toward your brand, you need to provide an experience that makes people want to come back, and you need to work to develop “buzz” or back-channel relationships between customers, not impose on them.

Can the line be crossed between true relationships and affinities? Only when people are involved. But when they are, the results can be powerful bonds that resist commodification and the whims of fashion.

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