Here’s a paradox that marketers, especially digital marketers, are facing: Everyone realizes the power of personal, meaningful connections. The more personalization (and personal connection), the better. Building consumer relationships has been proven to increase spending and encourage brand loyalty.
But if we took a look at how “personal” connections manifest these days, what would we see? We’d see companies leveraging more and more automation: automated drip campaigns, personalized and relevant product recommendations, increasingly fine market segmentation using data, online fan-based communities, and so on. This makes sense, as marketing requires that we do things at scale, to entire markets. Automation means reaching more people in more personally relevant ways.
The problem is that “automated,” in most people’s minds, is the exact opposite of personal. (Anyone who has to navigate a customer service “phone tree” would agree). And, for the most part, they’re right: Our increasing reliance on automation has begun to make our interactions less personal, not more—especially for client-focused industries.
A few quick examples will illustrate this point:
• You look into a software solution for your company, browsing a few websites and even downloading a couple of free demos. Suddenly, you are on the mailing list of five different software companies. Though every email is written as if it’s a personal email coming from the CEO, you know deep down that it’s just an automated message trying to get you to convert.
• You have a “work anniversary” at your company. This gets posted to LinkedIn, where a slew of connections fire off a quick “congrats!” But there are so many messages all saying the same thing that you ignore them. In fact, they become bothersome.
• A vendor takes you out to an expensive lunch. The lunch is pleasant enough, and you discuss some business, telling the vendor about your projects. He recommends some of their products, but none of them fit any of your current needs. You don’t hear from the vendor again until six months later on the dot ... when his calendar tells him that he needs to reconnect with you.
In all of these cases, automation has made connecting easier and more manageable. But it has failed to make those engagements more meaningful and personal.
Why not? So far, automation scales at the expense of the personal. Most automated systems simply are not designed to enable the kinds of small, meaningful gestures that are the basis of strong relationships.
What are these “small meaningful gestures,” and why aren’t they captured by current platforms? It might be easiest to describe some examples:
• A client mentions an upcoming visit to New York City for business. Before the trip, you share with your client some recommendations on what to do, what restaurants to try, and so on, along with links to more details.
• Another client of yours loves sports. You receive regular updates about teams that won and lost, so you can connect with him over this interest.
• A prospect mentions that he’s looking at retirement communities for his aging mother and is having a tough time of it. A few days later, you send him a link to an organization that helps families with precisely this challenge. You then follow up a few weeks later to see how things are going.
• After a big purchase, a customer of yours receives a thank you—not just a note or a gift card, but tickets to see a favorite band when the band is in town.
Any of these gestures would be highly appreciated. Notice also how each is highly personal. Each gesture resonates with the unique goals, desires, frustrations, preferences, or hobbies of the person in question.
This is the new frontier in marketing, one that returns to the idea of the “personal touch” to our business interactions, but using modern technical tools. As blogger and expert in buyer personas Tony Zambito once suggested, “Instead of using technology to automate processes, think about using technology to enhance human interaction.” So let’s start thinking: How would this new frontier come about? Here are five ideas:
1. Getting information: If we really want personalized insights and recommendations, we need information. That information can be data from a system or the “old fashioned” kind: things we learn in conversation with our connections. The important thing is not where the data comes from, but that it gets recorded and used to engage.
2. Getting actionable insights: We’re used to receiving notifications about travel delays and weather updates on our phones. We visit websites that are personalized based on our location and past purchase history. In the same vein, recent technology advancements have helped us develop software that provides actionable insights for each audience member based on personal information—at scale.
3. Identifying moments that matter: People have their own unique passions. We should focus on moments that are meaningful to them. For example, did their sons or daughters just play an important game? Did their favorite football teams win? Do they have important anniversaries coming up?
4. Testing and refining: Not every meaningful gesture can be an instant hit. After trying several things, you should be able to analyze the results and adapt your approach. Technology has gotten to the point where such ongoing tests are easy to do.
5. Consistent action: The real benefit of automation is being able to do things regularly and consistently. Time is the most important ingredient.
I share Zambito’s vision of using technology to enhance human interaction. The problem is this perceived divide between intensely personal relationships, on the one hand, and automated marketing solutions, on the other. Personal and automated are not distinct options; they must be usefully combined to maintain loyal customers.
The organizations that figure this out first will have customers for life.