7 Engagement Lessons I Wish We Knew 7 Years Ago

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By: Jenn McMillen |

Posted on August 30, 2022

The art of communication has advanced dramatically over the past seven years, and it’s gotten noisy. The number of people using social media, smartphones and ecommerce has multiplied, as have the number of communications they receive. Along the way, companies have explored new ideas with success – or not. Here are seven missteps we’ve noted in our seven years of helping companies master their consumer engagement.

By: Jenn McMillen

Are You Telling Your Customers What They Want to Hear?

If a company believes it is using the right words with its customers, it needs to ask itself two big questions: 1) How do we know what they want to hear? And 2) How the heck do they even hear us?

There is an awful lot of noise out there, and crafting the marketing messages that make the most sense to a customer can be exhausting. The number of people using social media globally has more than doubled, to nearly 4.5 billion people in 2021 from 2.1 billion in 2015. Smartphone use also has doubled, to 6.1 billion in 2020 from 3 billion in 2015, and ecommerce sales have more than tripled, to $5.5 billion from $1.5 billion.

The upshot of all that new channel exposure? Every day, each of us encounters 6,000 to 10,000 marketing and advertising messages. That’s roughly 416 an hour, if you NEVER SLEPT.

You’re Talking, But Are You Saying Anything?

When we launched Incendio in 2015, we prized our decades of corporate experience, our understanding of the ins and outs of customer marketing, loyalty and CRM communications, and our depth of knowledge about which communication channels worked for which groups. I alone had invested nearly 20 years in a career of consumer understanding, so I felt pretty confident.

Hoo-boy. All the things we didn’t expect. But looking back, we needed not to expect some things in order to learn and get better. Here are seven of the more common misinterpretations we’ve encountered in our communications ventures, one for each year we’ve been in business.

1) Thinking personalization is too hard. Yeah, personalization is challenging, but organizations that make no effort at all are guaranteed to fail. There are just too many companies getting personalization right to ignore it, and most organizations already gather enough data for a solid start. Really, it typically takes just eight to 10 pieces of really telling data to put a solid strategy in place, but you can start with less. Sure, if you think you must achieve Netflix-level personalization, it can be scary (the streaming service sends tailored teaser images to specific users based on browsing patterns – one member may see a favored actor; another, a horror scene). Companies should start slowly, aim for quick wins, and then finesse the approach in tune to consumer responses. In time, the results will become more accurate and rewarding.

2) Saying “meh” instead of “yeah!” to invested data. Every week I receive confounding offers – for senior living communities and debit cards for kids; for cosmetic procedures and enlarged prostates. See here, I am a middle-aged woman, not a market segment, who coincidentally does NOT have a prostate, since I am – ergo – a woman. I wish more companies would recognize that. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are proving to be quite effective in this area, by engaging consumers online to provide more “this is what matters to me” feedback. The better those baseline communications, the more enriched the feedback data becomes.

3) Ignoring the data infrastructure. As anyone with a toothache will tell you, what we don’t see can hurt, a lot. Data leaks in a company’s transactional pipeline can result in forever-lost customer names, contact information and purchase history. Reward programs, for example, can lose a significant percentage of new enrollees if a system break or personal error prevents names from entering a database. We helped one retail client recover 1 million data-leaked customers due to data-capture issues, leading to $30 million in new sales. This isn’t an isolated case – as many as 30% of the emails registered on a list are invalid. Data-input reports can sniff out such inconsistencies.

4) Channel-bombing the messages. No one likes getting repeatedly poked on the shoulder. So why do so many companies respond to a product search or purchase by hammering the customer with a distracting parade of “helpful” browser pop-ups, digital ads and email reminders that they have “forgotten something”? I get that media agencies want to protect their cash streams, but technology provides the wherewithal to aggregate customer data and recognize their preferred channels, so companies can avoid investing in channels with which their customers seldom engage. Ruby Tuesday’s SoConnected Email Club works because that is the channel its core customers use most, even if email is considered old school.

5) Not asking your customers what they want. Good relationships often start by managing expectations and making clear what each party is looking for. This allows them both to set barriers. When a customer enrolls in a membership program or subscription, the organization should ask: How often would you like us to reach out to you, and how? Nine in 10 consumers open a text within three minutes of receiving one, for example. But if the company didn’t ask its customers if they prefer texts, how would it know? Bonus: the answers could provide helpful glimpses into a customer’s path to purchase.

6) Being quiet when you should speak up. Regular customers, especially reward program members, should be personally alerted to changes that will affect the brand experience. Companies that think vague communications will soften the blow of unwelcome change are kidding themselves. It took just two days for The Points Guy to call out Hertz for sending “a nondescript email to its loyalty members” about adjustments to its Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program. That change could result in a 30% reduction in points value, the story reported. Think how a long-term member, caught by surprise when trying to redeem, would react. Buh-bye. Consumers aren’t stupid, but treating them like they are is a path to defection.

7) Giving new ideas the hairy eyeball. It can be practical to wait-and-see how some communications technologies play out, especially for companies on limited budgets. But small-scale trials can provide enough intel to determine if an emerging innovation is worth a bigger investment. For example, customer sentiment analysis can help a company more accurately interpret feedback (is that comment positive, or sarcastic?). This algorithmic process can be applied to social media communications (indirect) or survey responses (direct). Based on the results, an organization can fine-tune its messaging, the timing and channels.

Effective Communication Requires Questioning

Companies should ask the questions that help their customers, but they also should answer the questions that challenge their own models. If customers aren’t responding to a campaign, the company’s communication experts can ask why and then accept a frank assessment. Without doing this, an organization’s entire engagement strategy can be questionable.

After seven years, we’ve learned that is the key to longevity.

Jenn McMillen, nationally renowned as the architect of GameStop’s PowerUp Rewards, is Founder and Chief Accelerant of Incendio, a firm that builds and fixes marketing, consumer engagement, loyalty and CRM programs. Incendio provides a nimble, flexible and technology-agnostic approach without the big-agency cost structure and is a trusted partner of some of the biggest brands in the U.S.