Customer Insight · Marketing · Personalization

Compelling, creepy, annoying or just bad? Retail’s personalization opportunity

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 20 years since Martha Rodgers and Don Peppers’ seminal book The One to One FutureAt the time, Dr. Rodgers and Mr. Peppers (not to be confused with Mr. Rodgers and Dr. Pepper!) offered up the radical notion that mass, one-size-fits-all marketing would begin yielding to a brave new one-to-one world. Followed just three years later by Seth Godin’s classic Permission Marketing the more intrepid among us started to make “treat different customers differently” our mantra and advocate for a shift to more targeted and personalized campaigns. Alas, we were a bit ahead of our time.

Despite years of missteps and hype, some two decades later the business case for greater marketing and experiential personalization remains strong. Fortunately, lower cost data storage and more effective technology solutions, along with general advances in know-how and the ability to reach customers through digital channels, now make it possible for most retail brands to realistically differentiate themselves on the basis of deep customer insight, data science and advanced targeting strategies. From where I sit, it won’t be long before advanced personalization skills become table-stakes in the battle for customer share of attention. To remain relevant — to become the signal amidst all the noise — retail marketers will have to get good at one-to-one marketing and in delivering more personalized experiences both in the store and on the web.

Yet, despite the strong business case, advancing capabilities and many years of experimenting, personalization’s potential remains largely untapped. For every success story, it seems as if there are dozens of weak efforts or outright debacles. In fact, a recent study by Accenture estimates that personalization failures cost US firms $756 billion and a total of $2.5 trillion globally. While I have a hard time getting my head around the accuracy and magnitude of those numbers, there is no question poor data management and far from stellar personalization can chase away business as well as leave a lot of money on the table.

As we start to understand how to both avoid problems and seize on opportunities, I find it’s worth asking a few basic questions.

Is it compelling?

The essence of good personalization is two-fold: is it relevant and is it remarkable? Delivering intensely relevant one-to-one (or mass customized) experiences is predicated on deep customer insight and the ability to target the right interaction (or offer) to the right customer at–or as close as possible–to the right moment. Retailers that are getting it right use data science to ascertain customer needs and wants and to better predict the next most effective marketing action. Stitch Fix is a great example of a company that has built predictive analytics and targeted marketing into the fabric (heh, heh) of their enterprise. The other key element is “remarkability.” Even if an offer is relevant, simply serving up the same old tired promotional tricks is unlikely to get a good response and help enhance the brand’s image. According to the Accenture study, 44% of all customers feel that brands fail to deliver relevant personalized experiences. Plenty of untapped opportunities here.

Is it creepy?

In my experience, the vast majority of customers have no idea how easy it is for marketers to purchase potentially useful pieces of data to better inform their targeted marketing strategies. Moreover, many customers fail to grasp how their lack of attention to privacy settings on places like Facebook allows marketers to glean all sorts of insights from the data breadcrumbs left behind by our traffic, likes and so on. Advances in statistical techniques and artificial intelligence allow for powerful inferences to be made by analyzing behaviors, transactions and demographic information. Walking the thin line between delivering surprisingly useful recommendations and something that smacks of Big Brother –or that raises unnecessary privacy concerns–is challenging. In the bloodthirsty quest for incremental revenue, it is all too easy for undisciplined marketers to step over the line. Resist the temptation. Strong brands are based on trust. Tread lightly.

Is it annoying?

I’ve met few marketers that believe less is more. For most, more is more, often to the point of going well beyond diminishing returns. Since email (and certain other digital messages) are often quite cheap at the margin, retail marketers often take the bludgeon approach to their campaign messaging. They dial up frequency until we yell “Uncle.” They chase us all over the internet with retargeting ads. They offer us products we just bought (oh yeah, sure I often buy a second dishwasher or espresso machine the week after I bought my last one). The holiday shopping season is a particularly bad time of the year where frequency goes to 11 and many promotional strategies look like they were created by Jackson Pollock. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Is it just bad?

In 2011 I started pointing out when bad personalization happens to good people and it’s become a bit of a hobby for me (apparently I have that kind of time). A certain airline (I won’t tell you which one, but their initials are “AA”) regularly sent my teenage daughters offers “specially selected” for them which included deals for mortgage financing. We were nicely generous with their allowances, but not enough for any real estate speculation. Neiman Marcus (where I once, ironically, oversaw our customer insight and personalization efforts) often encouraged me to redeem my InCircle Rewards points. Which would be great if I actually had any. Citibank still pitches me a credit card I already have, while AT&T, um, well where to start?

The first rule of personalization club is to not ask a customer to provide information that you already have (unless it’s to verify identity). The second rule is to demonstrate that you know the customer and understand their relationship with your brand. Any offer that belies that is likely to make a brand look dumb. The third rule is to show the customer that you value them: value their time, their spending, their loyalty, the exchange of information they may have provided you. Don’t waste a customer’s time by misusing their data, failing to protect their privacy, trying to sell them stuff they already own and not making a real effort to treat different customers differently. Don’t mistake simple or cheap for useful or effective.

Personalization is not easy. But the revolution sweeping retail demands that brands get more relevant, more differentiated and more remarkable. And fast. For many, delivering more personalized experiences and marketing may be the difference between success and being roadkill in the age of Amazon and digital disruption.

The changes that many brands need to make are not insignificant. They typically require new technology, new people, new processes, new metrics, material incremental investment and a willingness to aggressively experiment. But to paraphrase Eric Shinseki, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.  For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go here.

Holiday Sales · Marketing · Retail

With Cyber Monday behind us, the real holiday shopping season begins

As I wrote last week, the noise around Black Friday and Cyber Monday is mostly a bunch of hype. Both days represent a relatively small percentage of total holiday sales, and are even less important when you consider their contributions to profits given the amount of discounting that occurs. Moreover, there is little evidence that a “good” Black Friday and/or Cyber Monday has anything to do with whether a particular retailer will have a successful quarter or not. It also turns out that many folks take advantage of the past week’s hot deals to buy for themselves, not for Christmas or Hanukkah gifts.

The fact is the overwhelming majority of holiday season revenue for virtually every retailer will occur over the next four weeks, not during the past few days. And, if history is any indication, there will be at least two shopping days ahead that will comfortably exceed Black Friday’s sales numbers. We can also expect that the weekend of December 15 will surpass Cyber Monday’s volume.

We should also not get overly excited by the year-over-year online shopping growth numbers. Merely extrapolating the trend would suggest that e-commerce would grow somewhere in the vicinity of 15%-17%, and that’s exactly what happened. To be sure, the overall shift away from physical store shopping is profound, but nothing unexpected is happening, at least thus far, when it comes to this particular holiday season.

Now that we’ve moved beyond the two hype-iest days of the retail year, let’s bear in mind that there are still 23 shopping days left between now and Christmas and a lot can still happen. We should also remember that the week after Christmas is very important, where big volumes are posted, gift cards are redeemed, returns are processed and the trajectory for seasonal clearance starts to be set.

The good news seems to be that many retailers’ report that their inventories are in solid shape in light of conservative buying patterns. While this suggests deals might not be quite as sharp for consumers as past holidays, the industry might actually have a chance to realize decent gross margins. Of course, some sectors–I’m looking at you department stores!–are in a fierce battle for market share. Several chains, including Sears and Bon-Ton Stores, are facing existential crises, where a bad quarter could lead to their liquidation (or, minimally, additional massive store closings). In these situations we should expect promotional intensity to remain high.

But for now everyone just take a deep breath. Mentally place the stories about Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the “interesting, but not very illuminating” section of your brain and strap in. This next week will likely be the calm before the storm and then things will really start to ramp up. And, for sure, far more will be revealed in the weeks ahead then we learned this past long weekend.

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Customer Growth Strategy · e-commerce · Marketing · Retail

Unsustainable Customer Acquisition Costs Make Much Of Ecommerce Profit Proof

As much attention as both the growth and disruptive nature of e-commerce receives, few observers seem realize that often the economics of selling online are terrible (what I often refer to as “the inconvenient truth about e-commerce”). The fact is only a handful of venture capital funded “pure-plays” have (or will ever) make money and most are now embarked on a capital intensive foray into physical retail that even Alanis Morissette would find deeply ironic. Amazon, which accounts for about 45% of all US e-commerce,  has amassed cumulative losses in the billions, and even after more than 20 years still operates at below average industry margins. And while I have yet to see a comprehensive breakout, it’s clear that the e-commerce divisions of many major omni-channel retailers run at a loss–or at margins far below their brick & mortar operations.

So why is this?

Last month I wrote a post pointing out how high rates of returns, coupled with the growing prevalence of free shipping “both ways”, makes certain online product categories virtually profit proof. While the impact of this factor tends to be isolated to categories with relatively low order values and a high incidence of returns or exchanges (e.g. much of apparel), a different dynamic has wider ranging implications and profit killing power. I’m referring to the increasingly high cost of acquiring (and retaining) customers online.

Investors have been lured (some might say “suckered”) into supporting “digitally-native” brands because of what they believed to be the lower cost, easily scaled, nature of e-commerce. Seeing how quickly Gilt, Warby Parker, Bonobos and others went from nothing to multi-million dollars brands, encouraged venture capital money to pour in. What many failed to understand were the diseconomies of scale in customer acquisition. As it turns out, many online brands attract their first tranche of customers relatively inexpensively, through word of mouth or other low cost strategies. Where things start to get ugly is when these brands have to get more aggressive about finding new and somewhat different customers. Here three important factors come into play:

  • Marketing costs start to escalate. As brands seeking growth need to reach a broader audiencethey typically start to pay more and more to Facebook, Google and others to grab the customer’s attention and force their way into the customer’s consideration set. Early on customers were acquired for next to nothing; now acquisition costs can easily exceed more than $100 per customer.
  • More promotion, less attraction. As the business grows, the next tranches of customers often need more incentive to give the brand a try, so gross margin on these incremental sales comes at a lower rate. It’s also the case that typically these customers get “trained” to expect a discount for future purchases, making them inherently less profitable then the initial core customers for the brand.
  • Questionable (or lousy) lifetime value. It’s almost always the case that customers that are acquired as the brand scales have lower incremental lifetime value, both because on average they spend less and because they are inherently more difficult to retain. It’s becoming increasingly common for fast growing online dominant brands to have large numbers of customers that are projected to have negative lifetime value.

So it’s easy to see how an online only brand can look good at the outset, only to have the profit picture deteriorate despite growing revenues. The marginal cost of customer acquisition starts to creep up and the average lifetime value of the newly acquired customer starts to go down, often precipitously. Accordingly it’s not uncommon for some of the sexiest, fastest growing brands to have many customers that are not only unprofitable, but have little or no chance of being positive contributors ever.

While it’s not the only reason, this challenging dynamic explains in large part the collapse of valuations in the flash-sales market in total, as well as several major flameouts like One Kings Lane. It also helps explain why so many pure-plays are investing heavily in physical locations. To be sure, opening stores attracts new customers that are reticent to buy online. But another key factor is that customers can often be acquired in a store more cheaply than they can be by paying Facebook or Google.

Slowly but surely the world is starting to wake up to this phenomenon. The nonsense that is the meal-kit business model is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves as people start to question whether Blue Apron is a viable business if it spends $400 to acquire new customers. Spoiler alert: the answer is “no.” Increasingly, many “sophisticated” investors are backing off the high valuations that digitally-native brands are seeking to fuel the next stage of their growth, leaving these companies to thank their lucky stars that Walmart seems to relish its role as a VC bailout fund. More folks are starting to realize that physical retail is definitely different, but far from dead. And, in another bit of irony, some even are starting to see that many traditional brands (think Best Buy, Nordstrom, Home Depot and others) are actually well positioned to benefit from their stores and improving omni-channel capabilities.

It may take some time, but eventually the underlying economics tell the tale.

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Brand Marketing · Marketing · Me-tail · Personalization · Retail · Share of attention · We-tail

I am the captain now 

For a long time brands had the upper hand.

The purchase funnel was relatively straight-forward. Media channels were few and generally well controlled. The consumer’s access to product and pricing information was limited. Distribution channels were highly disciplined. Communication was largely one-way. Marketing plans were often drawn up just once year and any changes required substantial lead times. Mass marketing ruled the day.

Today? Well not so much.

The shift of power away from brands to consumers has been swift and profound. The advent of search unleashed a tsunami of information access that tipped the balance of power irretrievably. The rise of social networks allowed for tribes to connect more easily to share ideas, reviews and instantly understand that people like us do stuff like this. The rapid adoption of smart devices has meant that most consumers now have access to just about anything they want, anytime, anywhere, anyway. We no longer go online, we live online.

Yet still some brands remain seemingly unconscious and horribly stuck.

They continue peddling average products for average people, when no customer wants to be average. With nothing new and interesting to say, they simply shout it louder and more often. Many retail brands continue to rely on one-size-fits-all strategies when those programs rarely get noticed, must less drive any profitable business. In today’s attention economy these efforts remain merely a dim signal amidst the noise.

The power shift away from the brand to the individual consumer and the power of the tribe is upon us. Retail has a new immediacy. Retail is now much more ME-tail and WE-tail than some holistic top down strategy cooked up in a conference room. Don’t kid yourself–you’ve never been less in control than right this very minute. And that’s not changing.

The individual is the captain. The collective “we” increasingly rules the roost. And unlike in Captain Phillips, no one is coming to save us. We can only accept this reality, let go of the past and work with a new set of rules and tools.

image

CRM · Customer Growth Strategy · Marketing · Me-tail

I see dead marketers

I see dead marketers. Walking around like regular people. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.

Marketers who behave as if customers care about channels.

Marketers who continue to push average products for average people.

Marketers who value efficiency over effectiveness.

Marketers who think they can price cut their way to prosperity.

Marketers who don’t get that today’s battle is for share of attention.

Marketers who believe that the same irrelevant and unremarkable promotions will work if they just shout them louder and more often.

Marketers who relentlessly flog one-size-fits-all programs instead of embracing a treat different customers differently strategy.

Marketers who believe they are ultimately in control.

Mass marketing is dying, as are its stubborn adherents.

It’s the end of mass and the beginning of us.

giphy

Brand Marketing · Customer Growth Strategy · Customer Insight · Loyalty Marketing · Marketing

Dating the wrong customers 

In most industries, the smart marketer wants to cultivate long-term, enduring relationships with her customers. For most of us, the end-game, best case scenario is to create customers for life–or for at least a very long time.

Imagine if, however, in our personal lives, we had a strong desire to get married, but we only went out with people who made it clear that they had no interest in a long-term relationship.

Imagine if the person we were romantically captivated by insisted that we bribe them each time just to go grab coffee, see a movie or have dinner with us.

Imagine if their decision to go on a date with us any given Saturday night was determined by how well our offer stacked up against the competing bribes they were getting from other suitors.

Now faced with this intensely competitive and highly promotional dating market you might determine that you should go on a lot more dates to increase the odds of finding just the right guy or gal. Or you could choose to make your bribes larger. Or you could decide that, in addition to your bribes increasing, you’d add some perks or value-added features to make your dating game more unique and competitive.

By now, hopefully it’s pretty obvious that the best answer is not to endlessly spin to win the hearts of a person who fundamentally does not meet our needs, nor is there any gain in fighting a battle we can never win.

So why is it so hard to see that, all too often, we are dating the wrong customers?

Being Remarkable · Customer Experience · Customer Growth Strategy · Innovation · Marketing · Omni-channel

Send in the clones

How’s this for an idea?

Let’s sell products that are pretty much identical to everything else that’s already out there in the market.

And then let’s employ advertising that is virtually indistinguishable from our competition.

Every week we’ll have big sales–and if you’re really crafty, you can use our coupons to save even more!

Sign-up to be on our email list and we’ll give you 10% off your next purchase. And then, just about every day, we’ll send you an email highlighting some of our me-too products while also reminding you how much you can save.

Be a good customer and we’ll throw in free shipping. Oh, you hardly ever buy from us? No worries, you get free shipping too!

We’re all omni-channel and what not, so of course we’ll have e-commerce. And our site will look like every other site. We want you to feel comfortable.

Oh, you didn’t buy just now when you were on our website? That’s cool, we’ll just keep serving up ads on Facebook and everywhere else you go on the internet. Hope you don’t mind the little interruption.

And, after we do all this and we don’t get the sales we want, we’ll just launch a “loyalty” program that–wait for it–rewards you with gift cards so you save even more!

As silly as this sounds, it’s the play book for many retailers. They continue to swim in a sea of sameness. Most often, their default mode is to compete on price because, faced with a paucity of actual difference, it’s the only thing that seems to drive sales.

Unfortunately, the fact is most categories aren’t growing faster than the rate of inflation. The fact is most consumers have more choices than they can possibly sort through and make sense of. The fact is share of attention is the new battleground. The fact is almost all price wars end badly. The fact is any real growth needs to come from stealing share.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. And it may seem safe.

Yet the fact is it is just the opposite.

seth

Being Remarkable · Brand Marketing · Marketing

Who’s it for? How are they persuaded?

I sometimes get asked why marketing is so complicated these days?

At one level, I agree with question’s premise. The world is noisier all the time and the distracted consumer is the norm. In virtually every category competition is intense and the number of ways to reach consumers is seemingly infinite. Acquisition costs are rising. ROI is often hard to measure. And on and on.

Then I reflect on the major mistakes I see most brands actually make.

In my experience, struggling marketers get lost in the data, the budgets, the media channel choices. They get overwhelmed by stuff, instead of focusing on the essence. Often, instead of diving into changing the logo or tagline, before blindly chasing Facebook ‘likes’ or pushing ‘send’ on a batch, blast and hope email campaign, their time would be far better spent nailing the answers to these two fundamental questions:

Who’s it for?

Whether you have a product or service, whether you run a corporation or a non-profit, you need a deep and nuanced understanding of your target audiences. You have to accept that it can’t be everyone, but is, instead, multiple clusters of someones, who will need to be treated differently. And if your segment descriptions sound something like “affluent baby boomers” you need to dig deeper. Demographic segmentation has the benefit of being straight-forward, but the shortcoming of being almost entirely useless.

Answering the “who’s it for?” question requires you to delve into customers’ desires, wants, attitudes, behaviors, how they wish to be seen by their friends or peers–and anything else that is helpful in precisely understanding why customers might choose you over all the other competition. It needs to paint a clear picture of their specific needs that you can address in a remarkable way.

How are they persuaded?

One of the key jobs of marketing (the good kind) is to persuade the people we care about to believe something relevant about our brand and take action on that belief. This requires us to get specific on two dimensions of how that mechanism of persuasion will work.

First, for each customer type we focus upon we need to understand how we might shift a set of beliefs they have about our organization and our brand proposition. It’s one thing to understand what a set of consumers might believe about brand and what we’d like to them to ultimately come to think and feel. It’s another to understand what story we need to tell to affect that change.

For some, it will be largely fact-based, for others a heart-felt story. Some need to have their fear of switching taken head on. Others need a discount to give us a try. In all cases, there will be some form of objection, some set of thoughts and/or feelings that poses a story-telling challenge. Our job is to understand the specific barriers to persuasion and customize ways to address them. And when in doubt, lead with emotion and follow with logic.

The second aspect of how persuasion works concerns the vehicles of persuasion. Here too we need to understand the nuances in detail and be committed to treating different customers differently. At one level. this is about media channel choice and the type of campaigns that get run. Yet,there are two core realities of persuasion. It rarely happens quickly and different people are influenced by different things depending on the type of purchase.

Inpatient marketers make the mistake of thinking one or two marketing interactions gets the job done. Well if you have a me-too product and are just pitching the lowest price, it just might. That’s not a winning long-term strategy. Persuasion–the kind that is powerful and enduring, builds over time, and is likely supported by multiple sources.

Lazy marketers don’t take the time or care to delve more deeply into the nuances of persuasion. They don’t invest in really understanding current and potential customers at a truly useful level. They don’t segment customers precisely enough. They aren’t willing to move beyond easy to execute one-size-fits-all campaigns to more customized marketing programs. They overuse certain vehicles because they are cheap, not realizing they are often highly ineffective.

At some level, the reality of the world we live in makes just about any marketing complex. But it becomes unmanageably complex if we don’t revert to first principles and drive all subsequent action from that principled understanding.

If you can’t answer the “who is it for and how are they persuaded?” questions, there is a good chance you are stuck in a lot of activity without much impact.

Branding · Customer-centric · Marketing

The ecosystem of connection

We probably all realize that we are going through a connection revolution.

For many of us, scarcity of information, choice and access has given way to an abundance of stuff. The connection economy means we live in an era where we are literally one or two clicks away from nearly everything and everyone almost anytime we want. Relationships–with people, brands, causes, ideas–that were impossible just a few years ago are increasingly taken for granted.

As consumers, movements and things become more connected, many organizations that exist in their service aren’t keeping pace. Sure, plenty of brands have strong social media presence. Of course, monitoring online consumer sentiment is helpful. And yes, making it easy to share among peer-to-peer networks is a good idea.

Yet, far too many organizations remain internally disconnected in their data, information systems, marketing campaigns, processes, metrics and on and on. As Kevin points out, many brands still measure the success of customer contacts in isolation, not as part of a diet of interactions. But of course, it goes way beyond merely calculating marketing ROI.

Meaningful connection happens within an ecosystem. Seemingly disparate pieces weave together to become whole. Inter-relationships collide in both predictable and unanticipated ways. Relationships and trust build through cumulative effect.

As the pace of change accelerates, as consumers try to make sense of it all in an ever noisier world, brands that don’t line up their messages and capabilities to sync with the ecosystem of connection are falling further and further behind.

And once disconnected, once the customer sees your brand as a disjointed mess of disparate pieces, any hope for relevance is gone, perhaps never to be regained.

Being Remarkable · Branding · Marketing

Confusing the facts with the story

Perhaps you believe that people are rational and that when faced with compelling data, logically presented, they will inevitably move toward your way of thinking.

Perhaps you think that facts are all that should matter, that facts magically rise above mere opinion or prevailing sentiment, that facts are morally superior to emotion.

Perhaps when your argument isn’t carrying the day, when your marketing isn’t getting the traction you want, your default is to pile on more data and shout it a bit louder–and, ideally, PowerPoint would be involved.

But as noted marketing strategist David Byrne reminds us

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to.

Of course it’s important to have facts, logic and integrity on our side.

But as long as we’re trying to persuade actual human beings, it’s the story that gets our attention, that trumps the details.

Ultimately, it’s the story that we remember, that evokes our feelings, that connects us and moves us toward action.