Marketers, especially email marketers, are obsessed with the topic of relevance. Of course, there are good reasons for this obsession. Messages targeted to subscribers based on their interests yield higher response rates. Too many irrelevant messages increase the likelihood people will unsubscribe from future email messages.
In recent years, I have become obsessed with the question, "What companies do customers think do the best job marketing to them?" After considering the thousands of responses received through surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews, something occurred to me: relevance is overrated.
While marketers talk about relevance as a mark of success, consumers use the word "relevant" in negative contexts. Consumers talk about their irritation with irrelevant messages (whether in email, banner ads, Facebook, etc.). They talk about how many of the messages they receive are "not relevant" to them.
The vocabulary used by consumers talking about the companies that do the best job marketing to them is totally different. Instead of relevant, they use words like "interesting," "helpful," "informative," and "awesome!" Most importantly, they talk about how these companies "care" about them.
Relevance should not be our goal. In the minds of consumers, "relevant" is the low water mark -- it's the criterion for not sucking. The goal should be demonstrating that your company cares about its customers.
When asked, "What companies do the best job marketing to you?" consumers tend to mention the same companies over and over again. However, the reasons they like these companies are varied:
· Apple develops new and innovative products.
· Costco will refund anything.
· Oreo is fun.
· Pampers helps new moms.
· Zappos has great customer service.
· Amazon makes good recommendations (admittedly, relevance!)
While all familiar examples, it pains me when these examples are shrugged off as "old case studies." They aren't. They are persistent examples of companies that do a good job. They are also the companies that we all compete with in the inbox.
According to a recent survey we conducted for a client, 47% of people say they unsubscribe from email because they "receive too many emails and needed to get off some companies' lists." In comparison, only 25% say they unsubscribe because "the content was irrelevant from the start." To me, this says we need to pay more, not less, attention to what highly rated marketers are doing.
Taken together, what do these brands teach us? What would be the difference if email marketers started focusing on demonstrating they "care" first and foremost?
1. We'd study our customers regularly. We all have an idea of who our subscribers are, but we can't assume their desires, motivations and interests will stay the same over time. Doing so is like assuming your spouse won't change after you say, "I do." 49% of people unsubscribe because "content becomes repetitive or boring over time." Keeping content interesting means you need to study what will keep subscribers interested.
2. We'd highlight customer service. Email marketers hide behind "no reply" email addresses. (Interestingly, encouraging people to reply would help companies improve their delivery. Ever notice how the emails that arrive in Gmail's Priority Inbox are the people you have sent email to?) While opening up your reply address may be too daunting, at least ensure you frequently highlight ways for subscribers to contact you and get help quickly.
3. We wouldn't share data. The single largest frustration voiced among consumers about email marketing is when companies they subscribe to share or sell their data. This includes sharing with sister companies. Any way you cut it, sharing is a big no-no in the minds of subscribers. And they don't care what your Terms and Conditions say, because they didn't read them in the first place.
4. We'd be more creative. Automation is required to run large-scale and highly targeted email programs. A competing reality is that automation is the antithesis of creativity. Populating the same template week after week with similar-looking content gets boring. While impractical (and ill-advisable) to custom-create every email, breaking the mold, or changing the look every once in a while helps people stay interested.
This is just a start toward where a "caring"-focused strategy might take you. Additions to this initial list are welcome. But all of these will make your program more relevant in the minds of subscribers. It is not an either/or. It is a matter of striving for something higher. If we strive to create programs that show subscribers we really care about them, we just might surpass the relevance mark in the process.