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A guest post by Z Gillispie of Nurun.

In a world where most purchases and decisions are made through a filter of stars, creating customer loyalty can be a daunting task. Sure, your product or service needs to shine, but with communication among consumers open 24/7, your ability to control customer loyalty seems like trying to control the weather. Using these three basic principles in the categories of paid, owned, and earned media can result in loyalty that not only yields five stars, but also customers who come back again and again.

1. Paid Media

Paid media is exactly what it sounds like: It’s anything that you pay for to amplify your message. While the jury continues to deliberate on the viability of banner ads, I’ll simply state that regardless of your efforts, online advertising only works if it’s smart. If you’re not serving your customer a relevant message, you’re just another part of an already too crowded marketplace.

Dynamic creative is an excellent example of being smart. The trick to today’s dynamic creative revolves solely around “customer intel,” doing what you do best, (e.g., if you’re a travel company, featuring your latest travel deals), and knowing where to draw that fine line between relevancy and just plain creepy.

I’ve seen a handful of companies doing this right. Recently, I purchased a pair of ADIDAS shoes from Zappos. Because of my product purchase history, Zappos began “serving” me dynamic creative that included a carousel of the newest line of ADIDAS shoes. They scored points (not to mention extra dollars) with me when I wound up purchasing another pair of shoes I saw in the carousel.

Zappos also understands the concept of learning how to tap a consumer on the shoulder when there’s something they may be missing (e.g., new products based on past purchases or the subtle reminder of items they may have abandoned before purchasing). We’re a society obsessed with finding the next best thing---all the while convinced we’re missing something. Sometimes, we need gentle prodding and reminding that something may be missing us.

2. Owned Media

By definition, owned media is content you’ve created that attracts consumers. This is the strongest and often the most powerful form of media a brand can use to drive customer loyalty. This can be anything from blogs to branded content to landing pages to email campaigns. What many brands fail to realize is that branded content can be as simple as defining what kind of customer service infrastructure needs to be set up on a site. For example, if I’m a utility company, I need to set up my online customer service infrastructure to allow people to contact my organization at multiple points during the day.

The biggest challenge I’ve seen marketers face is finding a message that is delivered at the right time, in the right way, at the point in which a consumer needs it. For many companies, the solution to this dilemma is all too often a landing page. Driving consumers to a landing page is fine if you know the answers to the following questions: What’s the destination? How is my message being fulfilled? Dropping someone into a boilerplate portion of a website isn’t the right solution.

Marketers need to be flexible, and they need to understand the relevance of a personalized experience. Threadless does a very good job of this as their entire business model is built a community. When they communicate with you, they’re not just driving you to a landing page, they communicate, encourage you to contribute and rate other people’s designs. They’ve truly captured the full circle of giving back in customer loyalty while they’re still capturing an interest that I may have had before.

Connecting the content dots often requires email campaigns. To that effect, customer preferences have never been more important---especially if you’re migrating CRM platforms. Be sure to pay close attention to these preferences if you decide to change CRM vendors; you’ll need to make sure that your vendors are of “like abilities” (in the way of their ability to deliver specific, already-identified preferences).

The identification of preferences doesn’t just start and end with a spreadsheet. Companies like Amazon have gotten exceptionally smart about connecting consumer site behavior to email campaigns. In pursuit of the perfect patio furniture set, I went to Amazon to see its selection. For the next month, all of the emails I received were focused on patio furniture. Creepy? Maybe. But I tend to think it’s less creepy when it’s an email that reflects actions taken on their site.

3. Earned Media

Earned media rounds out the third marketing media---the one brands have the ability to inspire and influence, but cannot create. It comes in the form of chatter on social sites, product reviews, article mentions, good old-fashioned public relations. Think of earned media as your “back-to-basics” form of media. It’s about listening to the consumer and engaging with them.

Let’s face it: Purchasing decisions today are dictated largely by “Likes” and stars. As such, you have to remember that an understanding of your customers’ wants and needs trumps a Facebook page (that you just have to have because everyone else has one) any day. That knowledge breeds loyalty. That rich intelligence breeds return visits. And the anticipation of what consumers want and need will breed a customer who interacts with your brand and considers it a part of their everyday life.

And that’s powerful.

Z Gillispie is the creative director at Nurun. He has more than a dozen years of experience in website development, interactive marketing, and eCRM communication.

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