Privacy: What Do You Prefer?
When you go to Starbucks, you order a half-caf latte, skim milk, extra foam. The man behind you asks for a cappuccino with soy milk and a sprinkle of cinnamon. The woman behind him? Coffee, black. Starbucks can handle all these preferences—and even better, once you start becoming a regular customer, the baristas will know what you want before you reach the counter, and will be able to suggest that a new blueberry scone would go great with that latte.
As such, Starbucks and other customer-minded companies have trained consumers to expect vendors’ offerings to be customized to their wants and needs. That’s where an online customer preference center comes in: When customers enter their data and preferences into the center, it allows you to not only serve customers the way they want to be served, but also customize content and ads to their interests.
Although online customer preference centers make sense for businesses, Jason McNamara, divisional president of the database and direct marketing service provider Alterian, estimates that only one in 10 businesses takes advantage of one. Here’s what you need to know to wow customers and boost profits through a customer preference center.
Give them incentives.
Make it easy for customers to get to your preference center. Steve Morse, vice president of marketing at Click Tactics, which offers Web-based marketing automation solutions, suggests placing a link to your preference center on your homepage and including the link in all your e-mails. And you don’t have to rely on cyberspace; try including the preference center URL in your direct mail pieces and even in your outgoing voicemail message.
If a stranger walked up to you on the street and asked for your name, e-mail address and other information, would you answer? Of course not! The same logic applies to customer preference centers; you need to sell the customer on what she’ll get if she provides her information. In the case of content like newsletters, courses and alerts, offer an example of what the customer will receive if he signs up. Always stress the benefits of entering data into the preferences center, including relevant and timely information. “Would you rather give the company your information, or have them not know who you are and take the chance that they’ll market to you and it won’t be relevant?” asks McNamara.
Break it down.
If a customer lands on your preferences page and sees a list of 50 questions, he’s likely to bail out. Break it up into several shorter pages, and keep in mind that you don’t have to get all the information at once; you can allow the customer to complete the questionnaire during subsequent visits, says McNamara. Give her a log-in she can use to return to the page to continue filling out the form at her convenience.
People move, e-mail addresses change, customers lose interest in cats and gain interest in dogs—so if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a database full of incorrect addresses and out-of-date preferences. Give the customer access to her data, so she can change it at will. “Once you have the database integrated into the preference center, it can almost be like a contact manager in that you expose the database element to your customers and allow them to keep their own contact information up to date,” McNamara says.
You also can allow customers to respond to e-mails with information changes, says John Murphy, vice president of professional services at Kintera, which develops online solutions for nonprofits. For example, a customer can respond to a newsletter to alert you to an upcoming change of e-mail address.
Don’t rely solely on customers to keep their info updated; take action when you notice something is out-of-date. “For example, say someone subscribes to the newsletter and it’s going great for a few months, but then we get a bounceback that the e-mail address is no good,” says Morse. “We have programs that have automated bounceback operations in place to trigger a direct mail piece that goes out the next day saying, ‘Please visit the customer preferences page so we can continue the dialogue.’”
Protect their privacy.
Asking for personal information that doesn’t impact what the customer actually will receive is a big customer turn-off. “We encourage, as a best behavior, not to make the customer preference page too overbearing,” says Morse. “It’s not a survey to ask for all their personal information; it should be used only to capture information that the company can act on to make communications more timely and relevant. People will give information if they think they’re getting value.” Be sure to explain why you’re asking for personal data. For example, you might say, “We ask for your date of birth so we can help you communicate with other members who are in your demographics” or, “If you tell us your interests, we can provide special offers from our advertisers that are relevant to you.”
If you don’t explain the value that sharing information will give the customer, you also risk the chance that they’ll, for lack of a more delicate term, lie on the form. “It’s amazing how many astronauts from Afghanistan with a company size of ‘one’ you get,” says Dennis Smith, associate vice president for membership and loyalty at CNET.com. “It’s not trustworthy.”
Use the data.
Once you have data from a customer, you must use it or lose it. “When you set up a customer preference center, you’re saying, ‘I want to cater to your needs,’” says Murphy. “You want to make sure you can deliver to fulfill that promise.” The most obvious imperative is to send the customer what she signed up for; if she signed up for information on weight loss, then you’d better have something weight-loss-related to send her on a regular basis. If certain information, such as new product alerts from your advertising partners, is available only sporadically, let the customer know.
Another way to use the customer’s data is to “close the loop”—that is, share with customers the results of something they did or information they entered. For example, Kintera’s nonprofit customers can provide information to donors on how their donations were used to benefit their chosen cause.
Sending the customer e-mails or customizing content based on what they entered in the customer preference center are explicit ways to use their data to add value. But you also can use implicit means by tracking registered users on your site and offering value based on their actions. “If we have the member’s e-mail address and have been able to track that they’ve been hanging around the digital camera area, we can send them information based on this interest,” says Smith. “Instead of sending them a generic promotion, we send them something we perceive to be of more value to them. In the test we did, we got eight times the return of a generic ad.”
Implementing a customer preference center forces businesses to do something with the data they collect, which is a good thing, according to McNamara. “It requires them to put some thought into it … they have to think about their different channels and customers and figure out what questions they want on the preferences page and what data they want to collect,” he says. “It’s a healthy exercise for an organization to go through because it is an integrated marketing effort, and when they’ve finished they can implement sophisticated e-mail programs, offer more relevant content in e-mail, and automate their e-mail. It leads to a lot of other best practices.”
Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer who has published articles in national business, consumer and trade magazines. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.