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Soft Sell vs. Hard Sell: What To Say And When

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by Andrea Fishman
Principal, BGT Digital Experience Solutions
PwC

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Remember that time you visited Overstock.com to look for a new area rug that you didn't end up purchasing, and then were bombarded with ads for the same rug on practically every site you went to for the next few weeks? Was each ad just slightly different, becoming more compelling over time?

While it might have been mildly annoying, it's a great example of how leading marketers like Overstock are changing the tone of their advertisements at different stages in the buying cycle. The more they know about you, and certain actions that you take, the more they can customize their retargeted messages to increase the chance of conversion.

By starting with a softer informational or brand message, you can often get people in the door, but sometimes it takes a little bit more of a push to actually get them to close the loop and make a purchase. The soft message casts a wide net, encouraging people to raise their hands and express interest in your products. Once you know who these people are and maybe even what specific products they are interested in, you can deliver a hard-sell message to get them to convert.

The hard sell can take a number of different approaches. Some companies, such as Overstock, follow you around the Net with ads for the product you showed interest in, informing you of the current price and the risk of it selling out. Other companies use the classic approach of an expiring offer, e-mailing individuals to inform them that they only have a limited time to get the item at that price. This "expiring offer" message has proved to be a huge motivator to purchase, as can be seen in time-sensitive deals at sites such as Groupon and Woot.

Some retailers even send coupons to visitors who add something to a cart but don't check out. This approach illustrates one of the main risks of hard-sell messaging. If you simply send coupons to every customer who adds something to his cart but doesn't complete his purchase, eventually people will realize your strategy. Before long, you'll have trained your customer base to always add products to their carts and not buy, knowing that you'll eventually send them a coupon.

Because of this, it's critical to keep your hard-sell messages varied. Sometimes a coupon might be the best option, but other times you might want to consider simply reminding customers about the product. These targeting schemas can quickly get complicated. Maybe you want to send someone a coupon if their estimated life-time value is high, but only send them an informational offer if they're a low-potential value customer.

What's most important when implementing this type of strategy is determining what behaviors are going to trigger a switch from soft-sell messaging to hard-sell messaging and how you're going to deliver that message. Some companies like to wait until a visitor has added an item to a cart to make the switch, while others are content with simple browsing interest. Either way, once decided, marketers must next determine which online channel to use to send the hard-sell message. Overstock, as previously discussed, likes to use banner ads. Some sites wait until you return to the site and then show a special offer on the home page. Companies that know who the user is will often use personalized e-mails to entice that person to complete the sale.

Regardless of the tactics used to implement this strategy, marketers always need to think about the underlying behavioral foundations. All of your customers are different. They're looking for different things, are at different parts of the sales cycle, and have different motivations that lead to conversion. To maximize return, your messaging must account for this and leverage this knowledge effectively.

Read Andrea Fishman's previous article, "Breaking The Content Barrier."

About Andrea Fishman

Andrea Fishman (@andreafishman) is Principal, BGT Digital Experience Solutions, PwC. A 2010 Stevie Awards Finalist as Best Executive in a Service Business and graduate of Brandeis University, Fishman is a nationally recognized expert on interactive marketing.

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