Gimme Shelter


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In life, the words “open” and “closed” can be defined in positive as well as negative terms: “Open” can offer a sense of inclusiveness and freedom, but also chaos and overwhelming choice. “Closed” can smack of restriction and constraints, but also safety and protection.

In today’s social-media-mad world of marketing, however, “open” has been touted as the only way to provide the most consumer convenience and freedom—through unlimited choice and access to an array of digital channels. “Closed,” however, has been dismissed as painfully old-school as a dial-up internet connection. Whether marketers are looking to reach consumers through Google, Facebook, iPhone apps or Twitter, the more open the channel, say industry leaders, the better.

For loyalty marketers, however, the philosophy of “open” can pose a distinct challenge when it comes to gaining and keeping consumer trust—an essential tenet of loyalty—particularly in the wild, woolly worlds of social media and mobile. After all, part of establishing loyalty is providing feelings of membership, exclusivity, and, yes, security. But with today’s scams, phishing, bogus product sites, misinformation and misleading product reviews, how can loyalty marketers develop a long-term, personalized relationship with consumers and still offer them the privacy and security they need (not to mention hold onto their own reputation in a world where it can be so easily besmirched by spam and scams)? And how can they offer any semblance of specialness when anyone can become a fan, friend or even foe?

I say that perhaps the future lies in the positive use of controlled communities, to keep key loyalists in and non-relevant folks out, through, for example, a Member Private Network to allow members a safe haven in this brave new world. After all, companies employ VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to provide secure access to business networks. Contrary to today’s common wisdom holding that an open, uncontrolled social-media world is what consumers want, a closed channel in my opinion can turn into a positive if it is relevant to consumers, bestowing an elevated relationship with the brand and a feeling of distinctiveness.

Consider one of Godiva Chocolatier’s uses of community on the web—at one point creating a user community to open up discussion of the product and allow Godiva to test ideas among its customers—as a good example of this. Membership was limited to 400 people, so there was indeed exclusivity. Another example is Seventh Generation’s “Nation,” which allows green-thinking members to post to a community forum and blog, get discounts and receive a newsletter and other materials. Even American Express’s OPEN forum makes a small business feel like a special, unique member of something to be proud of.

Private channels, of course, are nothing new—companies have long offered their own member networks and there are many social media communities limited to those with a specific niche identity (Moms, Boomers, African-Americans, for example). But I believe brands can do more of the same without the negative connotations that embattled web 1.0 “Walled Gardens” such as AOL when it launched in 1999, wherein users felt restricted and unable to escape its confines to access the wider web.

Perhaps consumers have reached the tipping point of being ready to explore this notion of exclusiveness further—and maybe loyalty marketers need to be ready for that possibility. Today’s marketers are often so mired in issues such as “Should I invest in Facebook and Twitter?” and “How much?” and “How do I measure their success?” that they may miss out on a coming trend toward exclusiveness and privacy. The situation resembles the internet bubble before it was ready to burst: Everyone was still investing in when the sock puppet was ready to go through the rinse cycle.

Are you ready for the pendulum to swing the other way? Make sure your strategic plans are in place, because sometimes people get lost in wide open spaces and need to find the right place to seek shelter—if it is relevant and opt-in (and out), of course. Pleasant gardens can perhaps be even more vibrant thriving within beautifully constructed walls.

John Bartold
John Bartold, Vice President, Loyalty Solutions at Epsilon, specializes in developing marketing initiatives to build relationships and alter customer behavior for increased profitability and reduced churn. John is a frequently requested speaker on the subject of marketing and management at conferences throughout the US. He also serves as a faculty member for the highly popular Loyalty Marketing Workshop offered by the Direct Marketing Association and is a contributing editor to COLLOQUY.


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