Will All Retailing One Day Be E-Tailing?

With all the press about dot-coms, e-commerce enabling and clicks-and-mortar, one would think that traditional storefronts have already disappeared from our highways. But while everything should be customer-centric, not all customers want to shop electronically. There are those who love it and wouldn’t think of using any other way to buy anything. And there are those who wouldn’t imagine buying anything without first touching it. Most of us fall somewhere in-between: Clothes and cars get the test drives and try-ons, books and records get shipped sight unseen.

The truth lies in recognizing that what we all gain is increased consumer choice, and that choice makes true relationship marketing more important than ever. You see, it’s the relationship that keeps consumers from switching, whether they do so by driving down the pike or clicking on the mouse. The goal of relationship marketing isn’t just client retention, although that’s a big part of it. After all, we all know it costs far less to keep customers than to acquire new ones. Relationship marketing aims at increasing your share of every customer, not just market share. How? By using what you know about your customer to offer what he or she really wants and needs.

Create a relationship. Using new electronic channels to communicate with your customers is no guarantee that you’re building something of value between you and them. For example, take e-mails. They would appear to be the perfect vehicle for true relationship marketing. They cost nearly nothing to create, are flexible, arrive instantly, and, in theory, can take advantage of these attributes to deliver highly targeted information to people who want it, who have raised their hands and asked to be part of a relationship.

But that is in theory. E-mails, thanks to spam, thanks to the number of them generated each day, thanks to the incredibly low cost to market them, have already gone through the crisis that overtook regular mail some time ago. Mailboxes are too full. Too many messages, too much junk, too much unsolicited mail, makes the channel a less personal, less effective form of communication. You need to stand out among the clutter. You need to help people make a judgment about whether or not they want to dedicate any of their time to even opening your e-mail. Suddenly, the subject line of an e-mail is equivalent to a teaser line on an outer envelope.

Deliver on the Promise. Fool the reader into opening an e-mail because of a provocative header, only to have them find that the actual content bears little relation to the line and you’ve taken three steps backward in relationship building. But if your header refers to introducing solid foods to a baby and a mom with a fussy baby reads it, your e-mail will be opened. Then, if the e-mail contains ways to make the entire process easier, including use of your product, you’re not just selling – you’re creating a relationship.

In short, as competition heats up in the e-world, smart marketers are applying techniques developed in direct marketing to these new channels. And primary among those techniques is gathering the information about your customer base that will allow you to have a meaningful dialogue with your consumer.

Ask yourself what do you really know about people? Just look at the sea change in the style of television commercials for dot-coms. The first wave of spots virtually ignored content in their belief that a wild enough presentation would get people to type in a URL just to find out what the site was all about. A fine strategy when there were just a handful of dot-coms advertising, sweeping in the early adopters. But the early adopters have been pretty well swept up. Dot-com marketers are no longer talking to a crowd that could be mistaken for web developers; they are talking to Main Street America. Their ads, while still sassy and full of attitude, now offer up plenty of solid description and content along with the occasional gerbil being shot out of a cannon.

Traditional retailers should use this example to remember that new opportunities in distribution channels do not require reinventing your marketing. Stick to first principles. Targeting your market and speaking clearly to them remains paramount, whether you choose to e-commerce-enable or not. But most important, learn whom it is you are talking to and why they would want to hear from you. Only by knowing who you are speaking with, and establishing a real dialogue that the consumer feels is of value, will you retain and grow your customer base.

Becky Chidester is president/CEO of RTCdirect, Washington. Contact her at [email protected]

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