A few years ago, I was interviewing for a job and was asked how I felt marketing had changed in our lifetime. While I didn’t provide this response then (and also didn’t get the job), I do believe the answer to the question is quite simple, and yet so powerful.
The single biggest marketing shift in the past quarter century is the ability digital marketing gives us to have a meaningful, real-time dialog with our customers.
OG Marketers Would Be Quite Jealous
Twenty-five years ago, if a company wanted to speak to their customers they needed to stage costly focus groups and phone surveys that yielded one-time responses from only a tiny sliver of their customers.
Now, through the power of interactive web tools, email, social media, and maybe, AI-driven chatbots, companies can engage in ongoing two-way conversations that provide real-time information on customer needs, preferences, concerns, likes, and dislikes.
And yet, many of today’s companies and marketers fail to take advantage of this ‘newfound’ power at their fingertips. Rather than focusing on engagement and open dialogue, many maintain one-direction, digital marketing channels featuring:
- Spammy emails focused on offers and purchase solicitations with no ability for customers to respond or engage
- Disjointed social media posts with no resources dedicated to interactive content (polls, surveys) or post engagements
- Newsletters or blogs that fail to educate or address customer needs and questions
And the benchmark for marketing success often relies solely on increased monthly website traffic driven by SEO algorithms. But this is exactly what they shouldn’t be doing. Hint: Stop trying to drive web traffic.
Be a Better Friend to Your Customer: Create a Conversation Strategy
Think about it this way: How would you feel if you had a friend who, every time you connected, spouted a one-way stream of consciousness with barely any chance for you to get a thought voiced?
The reality is, customers need to feel heard and represented by your communications.
Shifting from a communications strategy to a conversation strategy is easier than you’d imagine. But it will take some resetting of the tools and tactics you’ve become used to.
1) Show Your Customers You’re Listening
Is your Social Media measured on reach, likes, and reposts? You may want to look a little deeper at the comments and conversations the posts are driving. Research suggests a strong connection between brand loyalty/trust and a company’s interactions and engagement on Social Media. Earlier this year I spoke about optimizing engagement on LinkedIn, etc., through the small, consistent marketing moves you make.
Comments on your posts identify who is interested enough to take time out of their day to write a response. The positive ones are a chance to reinforce their satisfaction and invite them to be added to VIP groups that can provide important future feedback and free marketing amplification.
The negative comments are equally as important—a chance to see what hurdles and concerns exist within your audience and show them that you’re listening. Even the haters and trolls can offer a glimpse at how customers view your industry—and predict some other shifts you need to make to expand your total addressable market (TAM).
Email is another chance to create a dialogue. When customers give you permission to email them, they are offering you the privilege of their time and the chance to begin a conversation. Show them you appreciate this, let them know that real people are on the other side of the emails, and offer them the opportunity to customize the conversation to what they need.
Avoid spamming and build a trusted email program instead. Start with these steps:
- Don’t use a no-reply ‘from’ email address. Nothing says spam more than the inability to hit return on that mail.
- Use a “From” email address from an active inbox. Set up an auto-responder so people know you’re not ignoring them when they do reply.
- Segment your email sends with specific content relevant to the recipient’s buying stage, demographics, engagement level, and other factors.
- Set up specific return addresses based on the segments, so replies are immediately moved into a campaign flow based on their segment.
2) Inform and Educate
Take a look through the last few months of communications from your marketing team—website updates, emails, blog posts, etc. Do they read like an endless stream of press releases or announcements about your products?
If so, it may be time to re-think your story. While product news is important, it usually doesn’t speak to real needs or challenges your company’s specific audience is facing. Take the time to research the headwinds or information gaps in your messaging. Then, develop a storyline that addresses those areas, so when those campaigns deploy, it’s clear the company is both empathetic and a solution provider.
Case in point. At Onramp, our goal was to empower financial advisors (RIAs) with a simple and seamless platform to support digital asset (crypto) investments by their clients. But as we spoke to more advisors, it became clear that the majority of them were either 1) lacking in basic understanding about the investability of digital assets or 2) concerned about the volatility and fraud risks of cryptocurrencies. Therefore, we invested in a broad education campaign on digital asset investing through blog posts and email and set up the Onramp Academy as a repository of valuable education so RIAs could speak to their clients about crypto with confidence. We also made sure to identify RIAs who were most responsive to our content and fed them into a sales campaign pipeline. Over the course of a year, we quintupled our social media followers and significantly deepened our demand generation.
With the emphasis on digital privacy and the transition away from cookie-based marketing attribution, it’s even more important to build long-lasting trust with your audience by providing them the valuable information and resources they need.
3) Build a Powerful Conversation Team
Having a conversation-based marketing strategy doesn’t mean you forego marketing automation and your tech stack. But, it does require you to segment which communications get automated and which get supplied with human mindshare.
When customers want to participate in a real, engaged dialogue, they don’t want to respond to a bot or get canned auto-responses that may be amiss 60%+ of the time. They want to be heard by a real person.
This level of engagement can overwhelm businesses but if everyone on the team is trained on basic communications strategy and FAQs, the burden can be shared beyond a few customer success personnel. Ideally, everyone at the company should regularly take a turn on email and CS responses. This is beneficial in two ways: it’s rewarding for customers to engage with team members ‘in the trenches,’ and it exposes employees to the challenges of the customer and improvements the company can make in its products and service. And, since we love playbooks, check out this customer success playbook from Zendesk outlining how you can truly elevate the customer service experience with a strong focus on humanization.
Remember, you can be proactive with customer service as well. Encourage employees to spend time online (or wherever customers or prospective customers may lurk) and comment when they see relevant questions or concerns. You can also reach out to your most important customers BEFORE they have an issue and ask, “How can we do better?”
Case in point.We tested a proactive CS campaign to VIP customers at GSN Games, with half the recipients getting a surprise gift (bonus game coins) and the other half, just the outreach but no gift. We found both groups equally increased engagement and in-game spend versus Control. The gift caused little to no increase in success. People just appreciated the communication and feedback they were asked to provide.
One important note with employees doing public outreach: Everyone should be schooled on what they can and cannot say for legal reasons. It’s helpful to have a Rules of Engagement document for when employees talk to outsiders on the company’s behalf.
The Ultimate Goal: Do More With Less.
After reading the above, your immediate response might be, “Great, but who has the time and resources to support all this conversation and education?” The good news is, if done correctly, the conversation strategy can lead to less work AND more productive results.
First, take the time to edit your workflows into what can be automated or outsourced. These include necessary, regular communications and marketing activities—email drip campaigns, SEM and PPC campaigns, PR, etc—that may not need a responsive, conversational focus. Also, make sure you have a marketing tech stack that can handle some of the automated tasks well. I’m a big fan of Hubspot for managing across Email and Social, but take the time to find one that fits the way you work.
Now, you can focus and begin to test a more conversational approach in some limited ways. It’s okay to start small. Carve out a small group of targets—maybe 200 or so—and split them into a control group and conversation group. Then, plan out a limited, multi-channel campaign that lasts at least a few weeks to educate them about a portion of your business that complements their needs. Maybe you start with an email inviting them to a blog post or article. Then, follow up with social posts that highlight or add elements to the blog post. For the non-control group, implement the conversational strategies and suggestions discussed above.
Identify 1-2 KPIs you want to achieve—such as improving the retention or Net Promoter Score of your most valued customers. After the test, evaluate how the conversational group performed vs the control group. The boost may be minimal at first, but you can iterate and refine as you go. By focusing on limited target audiences, you can avoid overloading the team but, hopefully, show that the more focused, conversational approach yields better overall results without having to amplify every message to every customer.