boy shouting into megaphone

An important endgame for most companies is to communicate a unique selling proposition – the operative words being communicate and unique. We have little trouble doing this face to face and wouldn't have made it far as entrepreneurs if we couldn't persuade initial prospects, the local banker, an early investor or two and, of course, family. Yet this persuasive skill can oddly vanish when we have to address an entire customer base – otherwise known as marketing communications. What comes naturally and spontaneously in person too often becomes overwrought and contrived in public.

The problem is that people stop communicating like normal people when they address groups. A different mechanism sets in: We overthink the message and speak to recipients as if they are some collective object rather than individuals. This doesn't have to be. Today's messaging technology makes unique, one-to-many communications relatively easy. In fact, it is part of an overall trend in business popularly called the long tail.

If you read Chris Anderson's excellent 2006 work – The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More – then you're conversant with this trend that has fuelled many a startup in recent years. Citing companies like Amazon as examples, Anderson said that products in low demand collectively make up a market share that rivals the relatively few bestsellers and blockbusters. All you need is an efficient distribution channel.

This same innovation has come to messaging. Mass communications such as broadcast and print advertising were once the only practical method of messaging large audiences, and this meant sending everyone the same communication. Today's messaging technology lets you message everyone uniquely, just as in normal conversation. All you need is a messaging platform, a segmented customer database, well-defined sending rules and content.

We owe these new abilities to several converging trends. The first is the proliferation of digital channels. It wasn't too long ago when email was your only choice to message customers and prospects directly. Now you can also do this via text messaging on your mobile phone and through social networks. Consumers choose from many more communication channels than they did just a few years ago, and the channel they use at any particular time is very much governed by situation and circumstance.

A second trend is the advent of mobile devices and, more particularly, the smartphone. BlackBerry launched the first in 2002, but it was really Apple's release of the iPhone in 2007 when all the channels truly merged – email, mobile, social and web. The result is that all these channels are quickly going mobile. People now read half of all email messages on mobile devices, vs. only 20% in 2010. It is the same with social media.  According to the latest Nielsen findings, the total minutes spent on social media sites via mobile devices nearly equals time on desktops – a 46% increase in just 12 months. Even web access is quickly giving way, with 12% of us now accessing the web from non-PCs (i.e., tablets and smartphones).

The impact on messaging has been more profound than to just 'mobilize' it and make messages more portable. Mobile has changed the very character of digital messaging by adding a third dimension that marketers have to consider – the device.

Pre-smartphone, messaging existed in a 2-D universe. Marketers needed to know a contact's name and email address and not much more to conduct reasonably effective email campaigns. Now they also need to know "what device", because the proliferation of channels and devices extended digital messaging to many more aspects of a person's life than just sitting in front of a desktop and waiting for an email to arrive. A person's immediate situation and circumstance now become highly relevant, as do any life-stage changes they might be going through.

Take the hypothetical example of Mary doing some downtown shopping on her lunch hour. As she enters Best Buy, her phone alerts her to a special offer on the very TV she wants. This happens because Best Buy geofences its 1,100 locations so it knows who Mary is as she walks through the door (triggered by her enabled smartphone), as well as her purchasing history. The last TV she bought at Best Buy was five years ago, so bingo! Location, in this instance, becomes the absolute key factor in a marketer sending the right message to the right person at the right time.

An hour later, Mary is back at her desk and her main digital channel is her corporate email. A sensitive marketer will also know that the way to reach Mary in daytime hours five days a week is through this channel.

Now let's advance the plot six months. Mary is on maternity leave, her corporate email auto-responds a "see you in a year" message and her main digital channel is now the choice of millions of other new moms: Facebook. A sensitive marketer will know of Mary's new circumstance, the needs that arise and her preferred digital channel. That is 3-D messaging.

All of this can seem more complex than it actually is. What it does is restore those old powers of persuasion – your ability to address people as individuals and be vitally relevant to each one. The only difference is that now you can do this on a mass basis.  The core components are  a good messaging platform (provided by many third party vendors – just Google "digital messaging"), a good customer database with the ability to segment according to various attributes and sending rules that determine what to send, to whom and when.

Here are some simple steps to get started – and the advice here is to start simple!

  • Choose a messaging platform. There are quite a few on the market, ranging from very simple and cheap platforms such as MailChimp and ConstantContact, to more complex and pricey such as Epsilon and Responsys. (Full disclosure: my own company, Inbox Marketer, is a messaging platform.) Most have free trials that will let you play around before buying.
  • Organize your customer data. This means segmenting, and the more information you can append to each customer record the more relevant your messaging. There are three main types of segment criteria:

  1. Demographic – Location, age, gender, marital status, children…
  2. Behavioural – Web activity on your site, open and click activity on your emails...
  3. Transactional – Products and services purchased, frequency of purchases, tenure as a customer, lapsed activity...
  • Determine the sending rules. This is the hardest part and will inevitably take much fine tuning. But, ultimately, this is what makes your messaging unique to everyone. The sending rules work with your segmented database to decide who gets what, and when.  An example might be an annual birthday message to a customer with a free coupon as a gift. The trigger is the customer's birth date in your database, and the sending rule is to send only to that customer, on that particular date, the birthday greeting message and the coupon.
  • Create Content This is the part that requires the most ongoing labour – because writing content is all manual labour. But just because you have 1,000 or 10,000 customers doesn't mean you have to write that many articles or items. The birthday message is an example of a piece of content repurposed many times – what makes it unique is the day you send it. The uniqueness of messaging comes in the way that you order and prioritize content for each individual.

The goal of today's marketing communications is to address your customer base as uniquely as you would in a normal conversational setting. The long-tail approach to customer communications enables just that.

Randall Litchfield was the editor of PROFIT Magazine from 1986 to 1990 and has been an entrepreneur ever since. He is most recently co-founder of Inbox Marketer Inc., a Guelph, Ont.-based email marketing services firm, and a four-time member of the PROFIT 200 ranking of Canada's Fastest-Growing Companies.

Read more of Randall Litchfield's columns

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