My sister is a Counter Burger fan and frequent air traveler. When I shared on Twitter that she chooses to layover at San Diego International Airport (SAN) because of The Counter, Co-CEO Craig Albert responded. Our initial Twitter exchange was friendly and brief.

Fast forward a few weeks. My sister was again headed to SAN, but risked missing The Counter’s closing time by 15 minutes. I tweeted and Craig immediately took action. We coordinated flight arrival time and burger service with the efficiency and excitement of a lunar landing. The result: a fun tweet stream, a great photo, and a brand advocacy story that’s hard to beat. Here’s the interaction:

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Craig’s tone and communication style is reflected in every Counter Burger touchpoint: on their website, in social media, and behind the sales counter. The company has created one voice – a voice that’s open, human, and fresh – and that obviously resonates with their loyal customers.

Many thanks to Craig and The Counter team.

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The future of retail does not hinge on any one device or technology. The future of retail demands a commitment to the customer experience above all else; technology is simply an enabler for a brand’s contextual and personalized connection to the customer.

The biggest challenge for CMOs and their agencies is threefold:

  1. To engage: create moments that engage, surprise and delight the customer
  2. To bring context and relevance to the customer experience: harness multichannel data to increase engagement and conversion
  3. To drive actionable insight: through data, to derive an accurate view of the successes, failures, and opportunities that new technologies afford the business

What is hype? It depends on your desired business outcomes. If your goal is to be seen as a progressive organization whose use of Google Glass personalizes the customer experience – such as Virgin Airlines use of Glass – then Glass is not hype. If iBeacon successfully delivers incentives and streamlines checkout, then iBeacon is not hype. Hype is a condition of unsuccessful implementations.

I believe that the future of retail can be found at the intersection of personalization, utility, and stopping power, or engagement; to synch the shopper’s journey with the right technology – tools, data inputs, and measured insights – to enrich the shopper’s experience.

What do we know?

“70% of the buying process in a complex sale is already complete by the time prospects interact with a sales person.” – Sirius Decisions Research

“80 percent of people who own three devices switch between devices to complete tasks or activities.” – GfK Market Research

“60% of Millennials are already willing to provide their details about their personal preferences and habits with marketers.” – Mintel

“For Starbucks, more than 11 percent of transactions per week are now happening with a mobile device in-store.” – Starbucks

“I say that my job here is 10 times harder and 100 times more interesting than it was 3 years ago.” – Carolyn Feinstein, SVP of Global Consumer Marketing for Electronic Arts

Who will clean up the multichannel data mess? Clients are experimenting with new roles such as the Chief Omnichannel Officer, or “COCO” for short. Apparel retailer “Finish Line” installed its first COCO this year. His (in this case) job is not to tie together customer data one API at a time, but to be a strong marketing and digital leader – to be accountable and responsible for the customer experience across the multichannel retail landscape.

Where and when is the transition from experimentation to practical implementation? That time is now. What we’re experiencing is the Big Bang of data, technology, design, and customer experience. The question is whether your organization is ready to create a strategic planet for these elements or if you’re going to end up with a lot of hot air.

Choice is now available locally and globally on and offline for pretty much any good or service a consumer could want. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for brands looking to reach customers across the device universe (mobile, desktop, tablet, gadget, etc.).

Marketers have better access to customers, but customers are better informed as they go into purchasing mode. Comparison shopping, product forums, social media, and other information sources have given the consumer the ability to make informed decisions before, as well as at the point of purchase.

As a result, brands can no longer solely dictate pricing and product delivery timetables – their customers are playing an active and real-time role. Social media, showroom price matching, and price comparison marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon make it difficult for any brand that’s not dictating MAP (minimized advertised price) to be undersold or commoditized.

Here are a few examples:

  • In the B2C world, 66 percent of Moms say that the Internet has changed the way they get information about products, but this savvy comes with caveats. They want to initiate the conversation. Source
  • In the B2B world, 70 percent of B2B tech buyers surveyed said that the amount of budget spent electronically would increase if it were easier and more convenient to browse and purchase items directly from suppliers and their websites. Source
  • Then there are the Internet-born brands such as Warby Parker and others that are making costs and benefits more transparent, disrupting traditional retail margins. Eyewear was a market ripe for disruption. B2C lighting and plumbing supplies are markets currently being disrupted. Source

What does this mean for marketers? It means that brand narrative, data-aided personalization, rich product information, and access to company experts is more critical than ever before. It means that integrated marketing is here to stay.

The minute you accept that your brand or product is replaceable is the moment you start working on great things like positioning, merchandising, packaging, product development, measurement, and an integrated marketing approach. This is the time when you start thinking about how to surprise and delight customers and obsessing about how to remove friction from the buying process. This is when the product finds its voice, and you as the marketer find your power.

Originally posted to Quora.

Simply relying on customers to find your product through social media and PR channels limits your ability to market and measure results.

Audience segmentation should take a holistic view of the audience – demographics, psychographics, social conversations, interview revelations, technographics, etc. A thorough review of the quantitative and qualitative data gives marketers and merchandisers the information they need to target products and messaging to consumers in a consistent, contextual, and continuous manner.

Accurate segmentation allows marketers to:

  • Align stakeholders around defined audience personas or archetypes
  • Create targeted and relevant messaging
  • Focus teams on content and promotions
  • Automate and/or hand-craft relevant push notifications and personalized content
  • Often, inform product design and pricing, etc.

Layering social sentiment (conversations, feedback, interviews, etc.) over a segmentation exercise can illustrate the customer’s voice, purchasing drivers, concerns, etc. Segmentation also helps create the framework for engagement and conversion measurement.

With the right data, segmentation, messaging, and measurement, a brand can find direct correlations between its outreach and the customer response.

Originally posted on wirestone.com.

In 1999, I championed one of the first personalized newsletter initiatives online. Our growing interactive entertainment hub had nearly four million unique visitors, and we wanted to increase customer visits, engagement, and page views. We also had formidable competition and wanted to create a vehicle that would drive reader affinity. A newsletter that delivered targeted compelling content was the solution. (Remember that there were no smart phones or social sign-on tools in 1999.)

It took months of engineering and a genius engineer to create a newsletter that allowed each reader to choose both the content and frequency for their newsletter. Servers ran at full speed all night to deliver these complex newsletters; a task that today’s IT infrastructure can do in minutes or hours. As a result, customer registrations increased, as did clicks, page views, advertising impressions, and most importantly, revenue.

Today, this type of personalization – and the monetization of personalization – is an ongoing challenge for marketers.  Many marketers have the email engine, but not the comprehensive repository of customer data required to deliver compelling, personalized marketing.  Some marketers have both the engine and the customer data, but are lacking the social graph data and analytics that would take their outgoing marketing to the next level.

Ecommerce leaders such as Amazon, Nike, and Target have invested in the people, technology, and analytics to serve up The Four P’s to customers wherever they are – at retail, on the web, in apps, by mail, etc. At the same time, smaller retailers with shallower pockets but just as much pluck (Modcloth, Fab, HomeMint) are using the social graph to deliver personalized customer experiences to great results.

So, how does your organization balance which marketing initiatives to personalize? We often use these five elements, as defined by Forrester.1

  1. Prioritize what to personalize. Architect personalization tools based on desired outcomes.
  2. Estimate the customer’s expectation of personalization. Use surveys and customer feedback to determine what’s really wanted by the end customer.
  3. Distinguish between known and unknown attributes. Weigh demographic, geographic, and purchasing behavior to inform your marketing.
  4. Understand the level of analytical complexity.  Be honest about what data your firm has in hand and the degree of personalization it can drive.
  5. Choose the interaction context. Make the highest use of the channel, e.g., retail salespeople, kiosks, point-of-purchase, mobile, web, etc. and consider the best medium for your message, e.g., email, video, game …

The expectation is that businesses will stop making the shopper work so hard. “Lean back” technologies such as tablets and look books (Pinterest, Houzz) have demonstrated (time and again) that a great majority of us are voyeurs. So, as retailers, it’s on us to deliver what the customer wants, where and when they want it. Those of us that do not won’t be around to answer customer service calls in the future.

Forrester Research, Inc. “Use Customer Analytics To Get Personal. Analytically Driven Personalization Increases Retention And Return.”

Originally posted on wirestone.com.

If stakeholders within your organization still view customer loyalty programs as purely a promotional marketing expense, or worse, a margin killer, they’re sorely mistaken. In today’s omni-channel retail environment, strategy-infused loyalty programs can be amortized across the organization to: fuel sales; inform customer insights; amplify brand awareness; accelerate promotions; and most importantly, to maintain an ongoing dialogue with customers.

Why do many organizations still shudder at the thought of implementing a customer loyalty program? Well, because they don’t understand the new mechanics of customer loyalty. Who’s doing it right?

Nordstrom’s Fashion Rewards program not only benefits the customer with “points” that can be redeemed with or for purchases, but they unlock services that play into Nordstrom’s core strength and brand promise: customer service. High-touch and valued services such as complimentary alterations, concierge service, access to exclusive events, free shipping, and more.

In exchange, Nordstrom creates a virtuous cycle of repeat touch points and purchases that feed a well-tuned database of your personal details and purchasing habits – amortizing the cost of acquiring you as a customer and better informing Nordy’s understanding of its customer segments. As a bonus, the customer is telling everyone that will listen about Nordstrom’s stellar customer service while wearing the goods they purchased from the store, by way of the web, app, or Nordstrom’s other businesses, Haute Look and Bonobos.

What’s so smart about Fashion Rewards? It’s focused on customer retention and lifetime value and not short-term customer conversion and ROI – both very important, but let’s remember to ‘protect the core’ while expanding the base.

Who else is doing it right? Foursquare.

Let’s face it, many web services would be dead if they didn’t remind us that they still existed. Foursquare was looking superfluous for a while, but then it struck a partnership with American Express that revitalized its relevance for Millennials – its core user base.

Foursquare not only used game mechanics to encourage repeat use, but its discovery tools dented Yelp’s armor by showing us both which businesses we should patronize and why. The incremental nature of Foursquare’s loyalty mechanics propelled it from a novelty to a platform that is now home to even more partnerships and service integrations … so much so that Facebook retreated from the “check-in” deals space.

Both of these companies are focused on creating value for the customer first and foremost and at each stage of the customer life cycle. Loyalty services are core to their businesses, and both firms are realizing gains in sales, utilization, customer feedback, word of mouth and digital social sharing, etc.

Getting customer loyalty programs right isn’t easy. Today’s omni-channel businesses need to espouse the multipronged benefits of customer loyalty programs across the constellation of decision makers within their organizations – from frontline salespeople, to the CEO, to the CFO.

If stakeholders within your organization still see customer loyalty programs as simply key fobs, gift cards, and coupons, they’re missing where retail and socially enabled businesses are headed. And soon, they’ll be missing their customers too.