After the Rains


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My grandfather was a farmer, and learned his profession on both a practical and an academic level. A bit unusual for the time and for the family, he attended the University of Minnesota School of Agriculture, and at one point he wrote an article for his hometown Wisconsin newspaper about what he learned. I have a clipping of that early 1900s article in which the senior William Brohaugh described a concept he’d studied: Crop rotation. Change the crop planted in particular fields in successive seasons to avoid wearing out the soil.

I bring up this point as I clear my email box of a fresh batch of emails from a retailer I first transacted with about two years ago. I get two or three such emails every week, each with some big offer of a discount, a break on shipping, or an enticing package of related items at a group price. They’re great offers. I think. At least they were at the time that I stopped paying attention to them.

Marketers and communicators have a couple of things to learn from the profession of my ancestral namesake. Crop rotation was adopted in the agricultural world to combat resource depletion. Planting only one crop over the years sucks the same nutrients from the soil, ultimately weakening the ground below, sapping production and speeding erosion. In fact, lack of such rotation contributed to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

To that retailer, I am such a figurative dust bowl; the sales have dried up. After my first couple of transactions, the retailer began planting the seeds of future sales with the same types of offers over and over again, seemingly at random. And then the rains came, email upon email in a determinedly erosive wash.
This retailer could have prevented eroding previously fertile soil by changing the offers, based on my interests and preferences—the sort of information that loyalty programs deliver so efficiently. Such offers might have been related to transaction-data analysis, though I’ve seen no communication that clearly reflects such data points as the category of my initial orders or the timing of the orders.

Or the offers might have been tied to my preferences or motivations gathered from me directly. Relevant and enriching offers can be cultivated with what we at COLLOQUY call “drip dialogue.” Quick and simple questions in emails or during website interactions, posed one at a time, can build an actionable data foundation for future freshness. Ask specifically about category or brand preferences to allow you to discuss what your customers want to hear about. Ask about planned projects or activities to allow you to tell your customers how you can help them accomplish their goals. Or ask something as simple as a birth date, so you can not only offer annual celebrations but also extend offers that help customers deal with or enjoy major life-stage changes.

My grandfather would cheer the kind of gentle drip of informational nutrients that allow marketers to reinvigorate customer engagement in these ways:

Rotate the crops. Make a range of offers based on preferences and needs revealed by transactional data and continual dialogue. Vary the content of offers rather than the offer type for greatest effectiveness. In the emails I’m clearing out, for example, I see offers of 60% off one day and free shipping plus 30% off two days later. That’s not crop rotation, that’s propeller blade rotation.

Plant in season. Key your offers to your customers’ personal seasons, which can take the form of purchase cycles (especially if offering consumables or renewable items), life stages (related to age groups, family status, and so on), and seasons, holidays and events. In any of these cases, don’t try to slap relevance on haphazardly by slipping into cliches or forced connections (“Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a lovely bunch of coconuts!”).

Give the soil a rest. Three emails a week makes me feel like I’m standing in a field of unwanted weeds rather than in a comfortable country garden. Let the customer step back from your offers with appropriate spacing. On the other hand, test and learn what frequencies work—perhaps three emails a week deliver pure profit for this retailer. Still, I would hope that my lack of response to the deluge would land me in a segment that the marketers target with other tactics to quicken my return, engaging me in the very sort of nutrient dialogue I’ve just described.

As grandpa might say, keep your customer engagement fresh with that new-fangled crop rotation, and nurture it with gentle rains, one drop at a time.

Bill Brohaugh
As managing editor, Bill Brohaugh is responsible for the day-to-day management and editorial for the COLLOQUY magazine and, the most comprehensive loyalty marketing web site in the world. In addition to writing many of the feature articles, Bill develops the editorial calendar, hires and manages outside writers and researchers and oversees print and online production. He also contributes to COLLOQUY's weekly email Market Alert and the COLLOQUYTalk series of white papers.


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