Focus on Creating Relationships

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Not long ago, as the victim of many late-night dinners and after a few unsuccessful diets, I sought the advice of a nutritionist to shed a few pounds. What she told me was surprisingly simple, yet effective: "Don't focus on losing weight. Make it your goal to change your eating habits, and the weight loss will naturally follow."

It sounded hokey, but it worked. Within weeks, the weight started coming off without a hitch. It seems promotions are in a similar spot -- needing a shift in approach, and thus shedding a bit of a bad reputation.

Try this sometime: Ask someone you know what he thinks of promotions. I will bet you do not always get a positive response. Most consumers (and even some marketers) are tired of and confused by promotions, and, frankly, who can blame them? Everyone likes to save money, but who can stomach the never-ending barrage of offers from all angles -- television advertisements, phone calls, e-mail and snail-mail boxes full of coupons and promotional offers for things nobody wants? The offers themselves are not solely to blame; they also are poorly executed.

Marketers must realize that promotions are about relationships and about giving people what they want. You can tinker with promotions endlessly -- offering free shipping, dollar savings, points, even gifts, but none of this matters unless you can give a relevant offer to the right person at the right time and in an appropriate manner. This is an often-stated and underdelivered resolution, but doing so is an important first step in creating a relationship with your customers.

Saving money is great, but that alone is not enough to retain your customers and generate loyalty. Neither are points programs or gifts.

True loyalty is the effect of the total experience a consumer has with your business. Relationships are built on how you treat your customers. If a business creates promotions that inform, offer incentives and encourage repeat business, and are relevant, meaningful and appropriately targeted, loyalty will follow, provided that the total consumer experience is delivered to meet or exceed expectations.

So, like taking the focus off dieting, marketers need to take the focus off "promotions" as a stand-alone way of doing business and turn their efforts toward the larger picture of creating relationships -- giving consumers what they want, so that they miss it when it is not there and ask for more.

That is not to say that marketers should not use promotions -- they have a critical place in the mix -- but they simply should change the way they think of using promotions and delivering their offers. In doing so, a successful business inevitably will change the way an offer is received by consumers and, therefore, create a shift in the loyalty paradigm.

For example, in this business I see hundreds of e-mails a day. I sign up for e-mail I do not need just to see what the industry is doing.

So, while I am not a pet owner, a few months ago I signed up for Petsmart's "Pawspectives" e-mail newsletter. This is one e-mail I read every time I see it. It is well-designed and informative, yet subtle. It does not overwhelm me with offers I do not need, but it keeps me informed on broader-scale information so that if I were planning to become a pet owner, I would buy from Petsmart first.

Shortly before Christmas, I received a "Pawspectives" holiday e-mail card. It did not shout at me, "Last chance, buy dog food now or it won't arrive by the 25th!" It simply said "Happy Holidays" with a few discreet links to its Web site if I wished to buy something or find additional information.

What a difference a little simplicity can make. Frankly, if I had a dog, I probably would have bought something. And, if I had, the dog would have jumped for joy when I walked in the door that evening -- not because I bought him a new toy, but because at the end of the day he simply enjoyed my company. Now that's loyalty.

In marketing, your mission should be to take a step back, focus on the bigger relationship picture and harness the opportunity to give consumers what they want.

• Dadi Akhavan is president and chief operating officer at e-centives Inc., Bethesda, MD, an online direct marketing infrastructure company. Reach him at

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