Build Relationships to Help Cut Through the Clutter

How can we cut through the clutter? With the no-call list and spam, I feel like my customers have less interest in my message than ever. I’m not sure they even like me.

This was the gist of a question I heard while speaking at a recent loyalty marketing conference, and it’s a feeling many marketers experience these days. A recent Leo Burnett USA report found that consumers get an average of 2,904 commercial messages daily and pay attention to just 52. That puts the odds of anyone noticing your message at 56:1.

So how do we in direct marketing stand apart from the cacophony and get our messages noticed? The best way is to develop a real relationship with your customers so that your voice can be heard. This means establishing a voice your customers recognize and trust. Think about it: If 56 people are yelling at you from across the room, you’re most likely to listen and respond to the one you know best.

Here are five ideas to help develop this relationship:

Think long-term. The most impressive piece of creative in the world still makes only a momentary impression on a customer. After all, if you beat the 56:1 odds of your customers or potential customers noticing your communication, you next have to get them to take action. And with average direct marketing response rates hovering at 1 percent to 2 percent, most customers who notice your message will fail to take action.

To develop a relationship with customers, you need to think beyond a single piece of communication or even two to three pieces. You need to move your customer along a path that starts with getting noticed, proceeds to get the customer engaged with you and eventually leads to an ongoing conversation, a dialogue.

This means communicating with customers and prospects regularly so they get to know you. We suggest that our clients communicate with customers about every six weeks, or eight to nine times a year. We don’t expect a response the first time or even the second. But over time, as our relationship evolves, we find more customers are willing to engage and begin a dialogue with us.

Good creative, yes. Cutting-edge creative, no. When it comes to clutter busting, the instinct of most creative types is to do something outrageous, to break the rules. But unless your brand’s general advertising is also out there breaking the rules (and few are), the look, tone and manner of your direct and loyalty advertising should bear a close relationship to your brand advertising.

Major companies spend millions of dollars yearly in marketing and advertising to build their brand. And whether we in DM agree with their efforts, we should try to leverage the brand equity they’re building. If the brand image is conservative and playing to a brand’s heritage, then ensure your direct and loyalty efforts follow suit.

Think of the brand advertising as an umbrella you should stand under. Feel free to go to the edge of that umbrella with your creative approach – but stay under it. Go beyond the edge of the umbrella and you’ll deliver a diluted message that is not making use of the brand equity and marketing dollars your client already has in play.

Cover the basics. This should go without saying – but if you don’t have the direct marketing basics covered, your response rates and participation levels are sure to mirror the tiny levels that are now the industry norm.

Before you mail your next letter or send your next e-mail, ask yourself: Is my list up to date? Am I targeting the right people? Do I have a good, compelling offer? Does the offer come through loud and clear? Is my call-to-action prominent? Are my message and look-and-feel true to the brand? Do I have an accurate measurement device?

Do I have an accurate measurement device?

The importance of targeting the right customers can’t be overemphasized. It’s amazing what a good analytics person can do when it comes to culling your data, identifying best customers, determining their lifetime value and identifying customers at risk of defecting. If you have these types of folks on staff, talk to one. If you don’t, hire one.

Use the data you have to make your message relevant. You know a lot about your customers from the information you already have. Use it! I’m not talking about dropping the customer’s name and hometown into the communications a dozen times. Personalize your communications by data like the customer’s geographic location, buying experience and likely future purchases.

For example, you may want to develop a different sales message to a customer in Orlando as opposed to one in Ontario, especially if you’re trying to sell a seasonal item like golf clubs. Should a customer buy golf clubs from you, you’ll want to use that information in the future to sell golf accessories.

When the Arizona Diamondbacks wanted to get existing customers to renew their season tickets, the baseball team printed a mail piece that contained a facsimile of an actual ticket on the brochure cover. Not any ticket, but one that had laser-printed on it the location and seat number of the season-ticket holder. The “wow” factor of seeing a mail piece personalized not just by name, but by “my” seat and location generated an impressive response.

Start a dialogue with your customers. Data can tell you plenty about a customer, but it can’t tell you everything. Start a two-way conversation with customers and ask them about their wants and needs. The result will be communications that are more compelling to the customer because they’re personally relevant.

Here’s an example: Sign up for the weekly e-mail newsletter from the National Football League at, and you’ll see that right from the start it engages you in a dialogue by asking a simple question: What’s your favorite team? Weekly e-mails are personalized based on your team preference.

Compare this with Major League Baseball, which also has a weekly newsletter program but does not ask your team preference. Each weekly newsletter sent during the season covers all 30 teams, forcing the reader to search for information about his or her favorite club.

That’s important if you’re trying to cross-sell team merchandise. While the NFL can personalize a cross-sell to me for a New York Jets jersey, Major League Baseball is stuck trying to sell me merchandise for all 30 teams.

The bottom line — and the answer to marketers who fear their customers are losing interest in them: Show your customers you care. Stop the singular sales pitches; start a long-term relationship. Stop the one-size-fits-all communication and start producing materials that are personally relevant. Stop the monologue, start a two-way conversation with customers.

The only sure way to beat the odds is to be in it for the long haul. Treat customers like a long-term asset and not a commodity, and you’ll not only retain more customers but grow them as well.

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