Social media to support customer loyalty strategy
Social media is here to stay, and marketers are increasingly seeing this phenomenon as a support strategy for a one-to-one marketing model that encourages customer loyalty and engagement, according to Gary Edwards of customer experience management firm Empathica.
In today's economy, brand loyalty often takes a back seat to low cost alternatives. Attempts by brands to 'spend their way into the hearts of consumers' have become increasingly difficult, with consumer attention rapidly steering away from traditional television and print toward social media and web-based alternatives that cater to more individual tastes.
But the 'mass customisation' of content for every consumer niche and customer segment brings with it a significant challenge: it's just about impossible to control. However, social media does allow retailers to partially return to their roots, echoing a time when every successful retailer knew their customers personally, and made sure they always got what they wanted or needed.
It is this aspect of old-fashioned retail that can be addressed by a combination of one-to-one marketing and social media marketing, as the tables are turning from 'brand loyalty' to 'consumer-side loyalty'. Relevance is the factor that drives customer loyalty today, and provides differentiation in a crowded market.
While most retailers still struggle with how to engage customers in a social media driven world, the best solution is to change the marketing thought process to first consider one key factor: how to think like a customer. For example, the growth of the internet has created a 'right now' society, so brands must recognise and respond to this change, both quickly and appropriately.
Customers demand easy access to information, whether in bricks-and-mortar stores, retail web sites, or via their mobile devices. When something is advertised, it's not acceptable to run out of stock. It's also no longer acceptable to give the customer a list of phone numbers of other stores to call to see if they have the item in stock. Inventory management, therefore, must be upgraded to make that kind of information instantly available through any consumer channel. Have customers asked for help finding merchandise via the online store? If so, consider click-to-chat technology that personalises the experience and helps drive customers to the check-out process.
This process is all about convenience and adapting to customer desires to enhance their experience. Brands that are able to successfully answer questions and target the consumer in their time of need will be best positioned for growth and will be the most likely to maintain a loyal following.
As one-to-one marketing concentrates on identifying and meeting individual customer needs, it also sets the tone for forging more powerful relationships. It helps the customer recognise that your brand is more dedicated to providing a great product or service (rather than simply pushing a product on them). So when complaints arise, any company concentrating on relevance will also strive to handle them in a timely and personalised manner.
Social media offers brands an excellent opportunity to connect with customers directly to handle complaints, as customers are actually much more likely to express their dissatisfaction online than in a store. When problems arise, why not Tweet your way back into the hearts of customers? Although brands strive for positive feedback and customer recommendations, they must also be equipped to handle the bad exposure - after all, customer complaints are a continuing reality in every market.
With the power of the internet, one unhappy customer can spread a negative message very quickly and widely among their circle of friends - and often among their friends' friends. Companies must therefore prepare for this by creating a strategy that identifies exactly how to approach negative material about the brand and how to respond quickly to satisfy the customer. Ironically, those customers who initially criticise the brand can be more loyal in the long run, as long as you handle the complaint properly.
Participating in an online discussion to show customers that the brand is accessible and listens to what they are saying can reap tremendous benefits. A simple validation that customer suggestions are appreciated and acknowledged will earn their respect - and often their future business. It will also help to confirm that the brand really does aim to enhance the customer's experiences as time goes by.
But while online relevance should certainly be growing in the marketing mix for today's retailers, the unfortunate reality is that most brands can't cater to all individuals all of the time. So 'reach' is also important, and social media helps provide exactly that.
With the most successful means of advertising being word-of-mouth (WOM), social media enables a customer's message to be broadcast via a powerful series of online networks. It is therefore critical for brands to have a presence via social media channels where their customers often post comments. This will help not only to identify complaints that are not specifically driven through the company's own web site or surveys, but also lead to positive viral exposure.
As a result, marketers should actively engage in dialogues in the online space rather than passively waiting for them to happen. For example:
- Detect conversations that may prompt new ideas for what consumers desire in terms of products or services;
- Make it easy and accessible to become a online fan with positive comments posted to the brand's Facebook Wall or web site.
In fact, more than half of Empathica's 100+ retail brand clients adopted social networking as part of their marketing initiatives in 2009. An emphasis on the online community and increased interaction with customers online is becoming more than just a 'side project' to be implemented when there's time; it's becoming crucial to business success.
One way to leverage the potential viral exposure of social media is to put your brand's biggest fans to work. While customer service is often reactive in nature - handling complaints and adapting products and services to meet demand - it can and should be much more than that. A brand must also be proactive by converting customer feedback into an effective marketing strategy. For example, some companies use the Net Promoter Score (NPS), which has long been lauded as a simple way to gauge customer loyalty by asking, "How likely are you to recommend our company or services to someone else?" But, while it is often good to know this, some companies don't use that information effectively, failing to ever provide their promoters with any kind of 'call to action'.
So, whether you approach brand loyalty in terms of relevance, reach, or a mixture of both, social media has become a critical tool in helping to communicate the brand message, to connect with the target audience, and to provide better service that will keep customers coming back. By putting into place the right strategy to address detractors, encourage promoters, and fulfil the needs of the rest, you can build true customer loyalty.