Generating customer engagement is a process of modifying behavior, the goal that marketing has been chasing since its inception. With digital marketing and loyalty programs, however, we have the tools to drive customer engagement in a way that’s empirical and scientific, and as such we should draw from the science of behavioral psychology, particularly the techniques developed by BF Skinner called “operant conditioning,” to tune our marketing program for maximum effect.
Here are five modern marketing techniques that you should use, and the science behind their effectiveness.
1. Be grateful
Changing behavior starts with identifying the behavior, clearly marking exactly when someone has done what you want them to do, and rewarding that behavior. In operant conditioning, this is referred to as a “marker signal,” a clear stimulus that identifies desired behavior. In digital marketing, this is referred to as behavior-driven triggered messaging.
The easiest form of triggered messaging to put into place is the thank-you message. Upon purchase, contribution to an online community, or referral of a friend, be sure to thank your customer for contributing to your business. The reward of praise is the easiest, cheapest, and one of the most effective forms of positive reinforcement available, and establishes an emotional connection with your brand that can be leveraged later.
2. Be generous
You can further reinforce customer engagement with a reward that’s earned immediately. Most loyalty programs allow you to earn points, stars, or cash back just for this reason. Every bit of customer engagement generates value for your brand, and delivering back some of that value immediately creates a feedback loop that drives up repeat business. The time between the behavior and the reward is crucial, so combining triggered messaging with a loyalty program is much more effective than using either in isolation.
Not all rewards have to be monetary in value, either. Depending on the brand, redeeming those points for rewards that tell the customer they’re special to you (like VIP access or a gold rewards card) or increase convenience (like free content or added services) can be more reinforcing than dollar-for-dollar payback. IKEA, for example, offers an added half hour of play time for children in their Småland playground to IKEA FAMILY members, which means parents shopping at IKEA feel less pressed for time as they walk through the store.
3. Be challenging
Don’t be afraid to challenge your customers to reach higher levels of engagement in return for higher rewards. “Raising criteria” is how you drive high performance in any training regimen, and the same applies for loyalty programs or gamification.
Starbucks Rewards offers three tiers of membership: Welcome, Green, and Gold. Each tier includes a higher level of rewards, but requires a higher level of engagement. In the first tier, you only need to have signed up to the program, but you only receive something free on your birthday in return. In the second tier, you need to have made five purchases, but you are then entitled to free refills (which is great for anyone who has ever written an article on their laptop while sitting at Starbucks). To reach the Gold tier, you need to have made 30 purchases, but you then gain access to free items for every 12 purchases, periodic exclusive offers, and a gold rewards card.
4. Be surprising
One of the most effective applications of operant conditioning in the world is the slot machine, and it works because it applies a variable schedule of reinforcement. In other words, you never know when you’re going to be rewarded, but if the reward is reinforcing, you will keep trying until you get it.
Surprise and delight is the term marketers use for delivering value at unexpected times. Sometimes it happens in response to unexpected events, like Taco Bell airlifting a burrito truck to Bethel, Alaska, but surprise and delight campaigns can also be automated.
At Clickertraining.com, a business built on operant conditioning, we created a program that gave away e-books, online videos, special access, and other digital goods to users who contributed to the online community. However, rather than a typical points program, we delivered rewards on a seemingly random (but precisely scheduled) basis that escalated over time. We saw great success in repeat contributions and turned many readers into regular bloggers and community managers in the process.
5. Be scientific
As marketing becomes ever more measurable, it is imperative to take advantage of this data by applying scientific methods to figure out which rewards are truly reinforcers, and which campaigns are best at driving engagement. Marketers can use methods like A/B and multivariate testing, customer profiling, and predictive analytics to figure out how to optimize campaigns for engagement and loyalty programs for return on investment. Techniques like triggered messaging, loyalty programs, and surprise and delight campaigns can be effective by following industry best practices, but measuring their effect against your target customers for your brand can lead to insights that help generate much higher rates of engagement for the same effort.
Driving customer engagement means identifying engagement, rewarding it, and creating a feedback loop to measure and refine those rewards for maximum effect. If you follow this mark-reward-measure model, you’ll turn browsers into fans repeatedly and predictably.
Bill Peña is vice president, technology services, at 89 Degrees