Why Personal Relevance Marketing is Important to You
By Mike Carlton

Could it be that the consumer is ready to move to the next marketing plateau?
Any marketer who violates customer trust is a fool.

A Man Named Roger

I live in a small, Mid-Western town. It has a men’s clothing shop run by a man named Roger. While he’d never describe himself as such, Roger is an expert at personal relevance marketing.

What’s That?

Roger is a wise and successful merchant.

He knows me as a unique individual. He knows what I do. He knows that what I wear is important to me and my work. He knows my taste in clothes. My favorite color. What I like. What I don’t like.

He knows my size. He knows what I bought last. And that I don’t need to replace it soon. And what I bought several years ago that is probably wearing out about now. He knows when to push me. And he knows when to back off.

And, he knows that I like a sale and avoid paying full price. But that I never quibble with the price he offers me.

How He Works

Very simply, Roger uses his knowledge, skill and intuition to become personally relevant to me. Here’s how he does it.

First, he doesn’t just wait for me to come into his shop. In very low key ways he stays in touch with me. Not through mass advertising, but rather by more personal, less intrusive means. When he stops to chat with me on the street. When he waves to me from his shop. When he drops me a personal, hand-written note. When we see each other at a community gathering. And sometimes, but not very often, when he just picks up the phone and calls me.

He alerts me personally to specific new merchandise he is getting in that includes items he knows I would like and/or need. He proactively tells me about an upcoming sale in which something I would value will be going on sale. And even offers to set it aside for me. He reminds me that a blazer I bought many years ago is probably getting shiny, and should be replaced.

He counsels me on how new trends in style and my tastes can best be meshed. Because of his knowledge about me, he can confidently suggest things that he knows will be in my best interests. And, he never, never tries to sell me something that he knows would not fit my unique personal needs.

Its Meaning to Me

Roger has earned my continuing business for four reasons:

1. I’m Flattered
I know that it takes extra effort on his part to gather, maintain and use the knowledge he has about me. He in effect is saying, “Mike, you are an important person to me.” It is only human for me to like that.

2. Personal Relevance
Because he understands the outcomes I would like, our commercial interaction is all about me. Not somebody else. Not some big gray mass of people. But me. And only me. Everything is personally relevant to me and my interests.

3. My Time, Energy and Money
He also understands my impatience. He strives to save me time, energy and money. He knows that I value his counsel which he uses skillfully and judicially. He knows that I get higher value doing business with him than I would with other potential clothing sources.

4. Trust
Basically, he recognizes that I view the value of his services to me very highly. He has earned my trust. And he respects that trust. He knows that ultimately that trust is the cement bonding our relationship.

In short, Roger always makes sure that his relationship with me is personally relevant. And in doing so, he has risen above being just a vendor to the status of becoming a trusted friend. As a result, I buy most of my clothes from Roger. And highly recommend him to my friends. I have become one of his many evangelists.

The Mass Approach

Meanwhile, there are lots of other clothing merchants that would like my business. Everyday I get catalogs, all in beautiful beguiling color. And email promotions. On top of that the newspapers are packed with clothing ads and special sale announcements. Same on TV. And every one of those marketers has a comprehensive website.

But there is a big difference. They are basically saying, “Here’s what we’ve got. There’s lots of it. You pick out something you’d like.” Basically, it is all about them, and their line of merchandise. And it’s up to me to do the work in sorting it all out. And making it fit my needs and lifestyle.

It is kind of like a big dump of all their stuff on me. The same dump that they are dropping on everyone else.

Nothing personally relevant here.

And as a result, I pay little attention to their shot-gun messaging.

A Basic Truth

From the beginning of time there has been a basic truth about effective selling. That is that it should be all about the buyer, not the seller. Pretty simple. But oh so easy to forget.

What’s Going on Here?

“But wait,” you say. “The way Roger works is terribly labor intensive and thus very expensive. Most consumers don’t want to pay for that level of personal service.” And, you are right.

But it might be more appropriate to say that consumers want as much as they can possibly get for the price they pay. And for the past few decades they have willingly sacrificed personal relevance for low price.

The “big box” or Wal-Mart effect has dramatically changed how consumers buy. The, “We’ve got lots of stuff and it is low priced” siren call has been extraordinarily successful. Whether it is big box general merchandisers or web-based airline travel sales or auto insurance, or, or, or. Vendors who have been able to drive cost out of the selling process, and pass part of those savings on to the customer.

The Business Proposition

Lots of consumers have said, “Look, I’ll do more of the work in picking out what I want from all the stuff you have if you’ll sell it at a lower price.” Essentially their message is that the time it takes for them to go through the selection process is worth less than the money they’ll save buying at the marketer’s low price.

That’s a fair proposition. But one that transfers labor cost from the seller to the buyer. And one that will work only as long as the consumer values money more than her time.

The Changing Consumer

The belief that the consumer values money more than time is the foundation of big box marketing. But, there is growing evidence that consumers are changing.

First, consumers have become better educated. The incomes of many have grown. While they now have more money, their lives have become more hectic. They have more possessions. They travel more. The pace of their lives has quickened. Time demands have increased.

Today, an increasing number of consumers are valuing time more highly than money. A big switch.

But, they aren’t fools. They are not about to easily give up the wide selection and low prices they have become accustomed to.

They Want It All

The harried consumer still wants wide selection and low price. But they also want to save time acquiring the things they want and need.

Could it be that the Me Generation is ready to move to the next marketing plateau?

It certainly looks that way. Now they want wide selection, low prices AND personally relevant service. Is this possible?

And what would this shift mean to advertising agencies?

It is clear that consumers are increasingly attracted to marketers that:

1. Understand them at the individual level (not as some abstract group)

2. Communicate with them one-to-one (not as part of a mass audience)

3. Make sure those messages are coherent (not different in each medium)

4. Respect them (recognize the personal dignity they demand)

5. Work on their time frame (not the marketer’s)

To accomplish this, the marketer must practice mass customization of his commercial messaging. Big, big change from the “It’s-all-here-come-and-find-it” era.

An Automated Roger

The marketer’s challenge, and of course the agency’s challenge too, is how to – at imperceptible cost - automate what Roger so successfully does.

In addressing that challenge, let’s look at the key components of personal relevance marketing:

1. Understanding the Individual Consumer
While the promise of data driven customer relationship management systems has been great, many implementations have been less than successful. Yet the concept of systematically gathering individual customer information so that it can be used in personally relevant marketing is no less valid. The underlying principles of Big Data just need to be applied more effectively.

A data driven information base about each customer is the foundation of personal relevance marketing. Whether it is in Roger’s head or the marketer’s (or agency’s) computers.

2. Personally Relevant Messages
Now it begins to get interesting. Knowing what the customer doesn’t like is as important as knowing what she does like. This is vital so that she never receives commercial information that would be irrelevant to her. This is crucial in building trust. The messaging to each customer should be carefully constructed to only address what is personally relevant and avoid all known irrelevancies. Essentially this is taking Big Data information and making it individually actionable.

3. Dynamic Message Content
Knowing what is personally relevant to each customer, and what is not, then makes it easy to build modular communications messaging that can be automatically tailored to each customer. Marketing automation with dynamic message content capability essentially makes the holy grail of mass customized one-to-one marketing practical.

For example, the regular messaging a customer would receive via email, the web, on his tablet or mobile device, in direct mail, addressable tv., etc, would all be in full alignment and carefully focused on what is known to be personally relevant to him. And would never contain untimely or conflicting message content that is known to be irrelevant to him.

4. Feedback
Consumers aren’t static. They are constantly changing. So it is vital that dialog be continually maintained with each customer. And the results be captured and cycled back into her profile so that future dynamic message content is always on target.

A woman who has her first baby immediately finds a wide range of baby products personally relevant to her. While a year ago they would have been totally irrelevant.

5. Trust
This is probably the greatest challenge in establishing successful personal relevance marketing with a customer. My relationship with Roger works because I trust him to protect the personal information he has about me. He values my personal privacy issues.

Many consumers, with good reason, have little confidence in the ability of big marketers (as well as big government) to protect their personal privacy. So, it is crucial that customers have a sense of absolute protection of their information before they will become freely forthcoming with each marketer. While sending out a multi-page arcane privacy policy set in 6 point type may make the lawyers happy it is not the way to get that consumer trust.

Creating and maintaining customer confidence is the basis for any meaningful long-term personal relevance marketing endeavor. And any marketer who allows painstakingly built trust to be violated is a fool.

The Good News

Up until very recently, the required labor and the sheer volume of data and unique messages needed to implement large-scale personal relevance marketing made it economically impossible. Mass marketing was the only viable option.

But not any more. New tools and suppliers are now available that can simply and economically manage personal relevance marketing among millions of customers, one at a time. This capability changes everything.

What This All Means for Consumers

It looks like we are about to enter a golden age for consumers.

Brands that practice personal relevance marketing will gain increasing attention and loyalty from a select group of appropriate consumers. Consumers who will not only be saved the time and effort of filtering and sorting out irrelevant messages, but will also continue to benefit from wide selection and low prices.

They will have it all.

Increasingly, those consumers will be in the driver’s seat. Their control over what messages they will receive will grow dramatically. Marketers that understand and respect this will thrive and prosper. Marketers that don’t will likely fade away.

What This All Means for Agencies

Clearly, the measure of control the consumer will hold in the era of personal relevance marketing will accelerate the revolutionary changes already underway in the agency business.

Agencies, and many of their people, have grown up on mass marketing. As the market shifts to the mass customization of one-to-one personal relevance marketing the very basics of the traditional agency business must be re-thought.

Consumer centricity will ultimately become the touchstone. Note, that is consumer centricity not client centricity. A big, big difference.

Understanding how client customers think and behave and how to influence that behavior, one at a time, will surpass the importance of traditional mass media ad creation and placement skills.

Yet, the ability of agencies to craft commercial messages that will change individual consumer behaviors will be in greater demand than ever. As will the agency’s ability to help guide clients through the turbulent transition to personal relevance marketing.

And as this transformation takes place, agencies will need to shift their business models so that they are fairly compensated for the intellectual value they bring in architecting and creating effective personal relevance marketing solutions. This is a whole lot different than getting paid by the hour for traditional stuff.

It Won’t Be Easy

The amount of change in the coming years will be daunting. And agencies that are unwilling or unable to respond to the market change being thrust upon us will slip from view.

But, the good news is that the upside potential is seemingly unlimited. But, only for those agencies that recognize and seize the opportunities.

Rogers of the 21st Century

Essentially, agencies will be called upon to create for their clients countless automated Rogers for the 21st century. Electronic Rogers that will turn their customers into brand evangelists.

Not a bad role for agencies.

© Carlton Associates Inc.

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