Online Exclusive: Best Practices for Dialogue Marketing

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Caught in a perfect storm of direct mail downpours, tidal waves of e-mails and thunderheads of mass-market advertising, your customers look to you for marketing seamanship. But unless you practice the 21st-century discipline of dialogue marketing, you may just go down with the ship.

Dialogue marketing isn't about pushing out information through call centers, direct mail and your Web site. Dialogue is about the give and take of information -- a two-way flow in which you receive information from a member and respond with relevant information in return. As in a traditional loyalty program, the key component of dialogue is the value exchange: You provide value-added information to customers, and they respond by telling you more about themselves. You record this information in your database, analyze the data and use the results to fine-tune your messages and make them more personally compelling and relevant. The resulting feedback loop builds brand loyalty and creates that safe harbor your customers so desperately seek.

Before you set sail with an ambitious dialogue marketing strategy, arm yourself with basic best practices to ensure continued good relationships with your best customers. Here are a few rules to get you started:

1. Get your hands on the data. It's a chicken-and-egg question: Which comes first, the dialogue or the data? There's a good chance you already have a vat of data on customers; you just might need to do a little digging with your IT and analytics departments. You can use available data to personalize your communications by gender, location, buying history, etc. You can begin a dialogue with your customers with the next piece of communications you send out.

2. Start slow. We've all received those surveys from companies we know and like. We set aside a few precious minutes to complete it -- until we get to the second page of questions and realize the end is nowhere in sight. Try to practice the "drip" survey method instead: Ask a few questions at a time, then feed them into your database and use the information to formulate additional questions. Gradually, the drip of answers you receive will turn into a steady flow of valuable customer data.

3. Show you're listening. If you're not going to use the information you get, don't waste your customers' time by asking for it. Ask only for information you know you can use, then show your customers you were listening by providing them pertinent information in return. Especially pay attention when a customer tells you she wants to opt out of your communications stream. There's no better way to tick off a good customer than by sending unwanted e-mails to her already full inbox.

4. Offer value in return. If a customer takes the time to complete a survey, be sure to give him information he can use and want. For instance, when the NFL signs up fans for its e-mail communications, the league asks you to identify your favorite team. Then it provides you weekly updates during the season that offer current stats, injury updates and previews of upcoming opponents. It attempts to sell you team merchandise, but the sales pitch comes wrapped in a package of valuable, relevant information.

5. Not everyone wants dialogue. As wonderful as your company may be, some customers simply have no interest in engaging you in dialogue. They may purchase your products and enjoy your services, but just want to be left alone, thank you very much. Ask their permission by sending only opt-in messages, then test their response. Be prepared to back off if they ask you to.

6. Don't misuse the trust. If a customer volunteers personal information, use it wisely and ethically. We recently heard from a customer who joined a loyalty program from a major credit card company and opted in for e-mail communications, rightfully expecting that the information she received would be program-related. No such luck. She soon was bombarded by messages for unrelated products and services from the company, an example of a loyalty program actually harming a customer's satisfaction. Don't fall into the trap.

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