Revive Touch Points, On- and Offline

I read somewhere recently that the term “touch point” is dead. A dated reference, now fallen victim to, I suppose, some new marketing silver bullet. That’s too bad, because touch-point analysis underlies the effective use of social media. And as we all know, social media is an increasingly important marketing channel.

Touch-point analysis, at its simplest, is about understanding the impression likely to be formed at some specific point of contact with a firm, brand, product, or service. Understanding what happens each time a customer or a potential customer makes contact with your firm, brand, product, or service is essential in a word-of-mouth (WOM) driven marketplace. It’s not enough for people to have a great experience if a later call to customer service connects them with an operations center that’s rewarded for ending calls quickly. The little things matter, too. When a restaurant puts its logo everyplace, including the men’s room directional sign, you have to ask: is that a brand association you really want to make? The priority given to fixing, maintaining, or even creating touch points must be thought through. How much money gets spent on the communication that only the CEO or board members see versus the communications that customers are subjected to every month when they open their account statements?

Measuring, prioritizing, and honing touch points is an essential craft in building and maintaining a brand. Consider the following:

  • The chilled glass of milk and chocolate-chip cookie with my son’s name — spelled correctly — in chocolate on a plate placed in our room between the time we left the check-in desk and when we stepped off the elevator the last time we visited the Four Seasons hotel in Atlanta.
  • The lime presented at precisely 1 o’clock on the rim of my margarita at Manuel’s in Austin, suggesting perfection even before I’d tasted it.
  • The inept handling of displaced passengers, including yours truly, during a brief storm in St. Louis that resulted in the personal loss of 24 hours, which I’ll never get back, after having paid an extra “disaster preparedness fee” evidently used to rest ripe the parking lot instead of actually preparing for anything.
  • Touch points work both ways. When they go well, they boost a brand into the stratosphere. Polished touch points that reinforce the brand are among the most tangible, talk-worthy elements you can actually control. When touch points go bad, they can leave an experience — and a story — that lives on forever for precisely the same reason. An ordinary person, like my mom, may have difficulty sensing or articulating a lofty brand ideal (not to mention deciphering a mission statement), that same person can recall the smallest direct experience. My mom is a walking touch-point encyclopedia: she can tell you which sales associates looked her in the eye during checkout at the grocery store, the temperature of the plates her dinner was served on at the restaurant she ate at last weekend, and the lengths her local Ford dealer went to when get her the car she wanted eight years ago..

    If you think touch points don’t matter, consider this: ExpressJet is launching its new service with a street campaign that involves giving out Biscoff cookies (one of my favorites.). On the plain black box the street team hands you, ExpressJet lists “snacks and sandwiches” as one of its differentiators. Think about that for a minute. A capital-intensive, hypercompetitive, partially regulated service business’s key differentiator is ham and cheese on rye.

    Still wondering whether touch points matter? Touch points are the only thing people who’ve been on a plane recently actually talk about. People who fly talk about their last experience at the gate, their last experience on the plane (including the ExpressJet sandwich, the JetBlue cocktail, and the Southwest peanuts), their last experience at baggage claim, and their flight arrival time. Four distinct touch points. Touch-point-rich conversations rule.

    Creating touch points, especially visible ones, can be an effective marketing play. We know how much airlines focus on the in-flight experience: seat pitch, snacks, drinks, movie, and so on. Problem is, without touch-point-based conversations, all of this is visible only to people on the plane — people who are already customers. Why not expand the touch points to include the preflight experience? The days of getting to the airport 10 minutes before the flight are long gone. Why not make the waiting area something to talk positively about as well? Southwest has been serving coffee, juice, and pastries in the waiting area on early morning flights for years. JetBlue offers free Wi-Fi. Could American differentiate itself from Continental by making sure there are handy electrical outlets — that work — near the seats in the waiting area? Why not make preflight part of American’s generally commendable in-flight experience for everyone who flies them? What kind of impression would it make on the flyers on a competing airline as they walked past and saw that?

    When considering social media and the ways in which conversations form and drive (or sink) traditional marketing efforts, think in terms of the following three steps:

    1. Create a list or inventory of every touch point, online and off-, and rate it according to how well it supports the message you want your target audience to get.
    2. Rank those touch points in order of importance. Don’t waste time on things only three people see. Focus on the things your customers and your competitors’ see, preferably in large numbers.
    3. Don’t over do the identity thing. Focus instead on the touch-point associations that drive beneficial WOM. The example I gave about the branded men’s room signage is real. Why any restaurant would purposely associate its food with the bathroom is beyond me.

    As a discipline, touch-point analysis is one of the easiest, least-expensive things you can do to get your marketing house in order. It’s equally applicable to online and offline and critical to pure-play online business, as Google creates a list of the competition every time your customers search for your product. Touch points may be out of fashion, but don’t let that stop you from quietly assessing your own. Your customers will notice and reward you by talking about the great experiences they had. That’s a winner every time.

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