April 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

What`s Happening?

5 steps to reaching customers through event-triggered marketing.

Today`s generation of Internet-empowered customers is inundated with choice. No longer will a prospect`s interest be piqued simply by an annual sale at the retailer down the street when he can avail himself of the same or similar products offered around the globe at the time of his choosing.

With customers now having so much control and so many choices, retailers need to do more than just offer a competitively priced product to attract -- and keep -- customers. They need to offer an engaging long-term experience that demonstrates understanding of exactly who the customer is and what he needs, and then delivers the offer at just the right time. To initiate and maintain loyal and profitable customer relationships, retailers need to communicate in ways that are meaningful to an individual customer¡¦s needs and are informed by the context of his current situation.

Defining `event`

There are multiple names for this concept: "event-triggered marketing," "dialogue marketing," and "event-driven marketing" are three of the most common. They all address the same issue of hitting the right audience segment at the right time with the right message. After all, strong customer relationships rarely begin by broadcasting every message and promotion to every contact in a database. With customers deluged by inbox overload, it`s the combination of proper timing, precise targeting, and compelling content that determines whether a retailer`s message will ever reach the intended audience and motivate them to act.

When someone has taken personal time to contact your business, she is triggering an event. That event may be a request for more information, an inquiry about a delivery status or a cry for help. Likewise, hitting a milestone, such as a product warranty coming to an end, represents another type of event. A business`s response to these customer events will either impress or aggravate the prospect. The outcome will likely depend on how relevant and fulfilling that response is for that individual customer.

Everyone can agree that conceptually, event-triggered marketing makes sense, but the key question is how to turn the concept into reality.

Step 1: Start by understanding your customers and what they want

While the web has created an ultra-competitive marketplace, it has also created an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to get to know customers in ways that were never before possible. A web site offers the ability to learn a tremendous amount of information about customers and prospects, including their preferences and interests -- even if the visitor remains anonymous. It is a medium through which visitors give retailers information about themselves just by browsing particular types of products, viewing particular articles, running particular searches or asking particular types of self-service questions.

For example, apparel retailers can figure out which styles most appeal to an individual prospect as determined by the clothing brands he previews; consumer electronics vendors can find out if a recent customer is struggling with a product installation based on the documentation she downloads; financial services firms can determine if a prospect is a conservative or high-risk investor based on the funds she researches. No matter the industry, information about prospects and customers can be gleaned by taking a close look at their activities on a web site.

While the web is certainly a good place to learn about prospects and customers, other channels also offer the opportunity to get to know them better. Inbound e-mail and phone calls can offer insight into a customer`s needs and provide insight into the state of the relationship.

Step 2: Create your customer segments or personas

While attempting to deal with every customer personally is the goal, creating an individual approach for each customer simply isn`t scalable. But by building up profiles of prospects and classifying them into one or more target audience, retailers can plan campaigns along the lines of their traditional customer segmentation strategy. Or, alternatively, they can plan campaigns around the notion of personas. Personas offer an alternative way of segmenting prospects that may not necessarily mirror defined traditional customer segments.

While segments are usually defined in fairly concrete terms based upon values of attributes in an individual`s profile (such as gender is male and annual income band is greater than $100,000), personas are defined in terms of people`s characteristics, needs, and motivations. Personas are fictional, composite characters who represent the behavior of key customer segments. A major software vendor with millions of customers worldwide characterizes each customer as one of 16 personas that span from the technophobe to the technophile and everyone in between. With these personas in place, the vendor is able to create a personalized experience for each customer and infuse highly relevant content in web visits, e-mails, contact center interactions, and in-person encounters to fulfill the customer`s intent at every turn.

As a further example, think about two people shopping for the same plasma TV. They can have very different buying criteria and information needs. A technically savvy consumer may be looking for the latest, greatest model and will want lots of technical information and specs before buying. Yet, the busy executive who cares most about relaxing with her favorite movies in the comfort of her own home theater may just need to know how easy it is to connect the TV to her existing Surround Sound system. Whether planning at a segment or persona level, a merchant can trigger steps based on an individual`s unique information needs, actions, and timing -- making it possible to treat each customer as an individual, while using a repeatable, scaleable process to do it.

Step 3: Provide the right information at the right time

Rather than presenting the same message or promotion to every web site visitor with the hope that it will resonate with a small percentage, content that is dynamically generated on your web site and caters to a particular segment or persona can generate much stronger results. Associating shoppers with the right segments/personas and presenting them with relevant content will demonstrate attentiveness to their needs and a desire to help them meet those needs. Such actions are more likely to motivate that prospect to take the next step.

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