Be skeptical about universal best practices. Get to know your customers by testing every message. Here's how to build your own best practices for customer activation, engagement and retention using messages.
Attention Is Precious
Where do you go when you want to completely disconnect from the rest of the world—no emails, texts, alerts, dings or rings? These places are few and far between for most of us. They're special because we're constantly bombarded with messages— some from people we know but most from news outlets, subscription lists and organizations that want us to pay attention to them (and spend money).
As a consumer, I get pretty tired of this constant assault on my attention. But as a marketing guy, I feel the tug in the other direction: how do I make sure that a person who might be interested in my product gets enough exposure to it that they can decide if they want to become a customer?
Skilled marketers play the long game: they walk this line by offering information at the right moment, but they also often hold back to win customer respect. They realize that customer attention is precious, so any attention they are fortunate to receive must be spent wisely. Nothing ruins your chances with a customer faster than demanding her attention but not delivering anything of value.
So how do you know when to ask for attention and when to hold back? The good news is that there is a right answer to this question. The bad news is that, over and over, I see marketers seek the answer in the wrong way. They want to know "What are the universal best practices that tell me what messages to send to my customers and when?" Instead, they should be asking "How do I learn when my customers want a message from me?"
The first qustion is impossible to answer; there is no single perfect strategy that everyone should be using. There are some good rules of thumb, but they change depending on your business and industry. The answer to the second question is simple: you need to test.
Practice Makes Perfect
You've probably heard the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. While this might be true if you're playing a Bach violin concerto, it should not be the case when it comes to crafting good messages to your customers. Yes, it does take time and effort to come up with creative copy. But when you have immediate feedback on how customers respond, the pressure to come up with exactly the right copy and call to action based on your gut goes away because you can test lots of ideas until you find a message that resonates.
1. Select a goal for the message.
The first step is to set clear, definable goals for your message. How do you want the customer to respond? What action do you want them to take? This is how you will measure success: do more people take this action after they receive your message. It's also the call to action in your message.
2. Think through your customer's situation.
Now that you know what you want your customer to do next, don't just ask them to do it. Instead, think about why they haven't done it yet:
- What action did they take last?
- How were they referred to you and what level of understanding did they come in with?
- What do people generally struggle with / wonder about at this step in your product?
- Why were they attracted to your product in the first place?
These are the kinds of questions that will help you anchor the call to action (the thing you want the customer to do) in a reason that makes sense to the customer. You're not asking them to do you a favor by taking the next step—you're persuading them that they're doing themselves a favor by taking the next step.
3. A/B test content and channel.
You probably won't hit on the message that really motivates your customers on your first try. Should your message be detailed or right to the point? Include links or buttons? Provide information or ask for it? Does your customer understand the benefit of completing the next step? Do they have concerns that you haven't addressed yet, or did they forget?
And that's just the content of the message—you also need to test which channel works best. Solid content may fail miserably if you're asking someone on the run to read an email, when it should have been sent via SMS or iOS/Android push. Thinking through your customer's situation will help a lot here, but you never quite know until you've tested.
Testing should be easy for marketers to do, but it's often a huge pain because you have to get engineering involved to set up the logic for the message, then figure out some way to access the conversion data on your goal, then match that against which customers got each version of your message. This is often so time-consuming that it's not worth trying. You can't keep going back to your tech team constantly, asking them to set up new version of your message and conversion results. They have other things to do. You need the ability to test wired into your messaging tool.
3. See how much each change affects your goals.
Now that you’ve created multiple versions of your message, you should be able to measure each one against your goals to see which version is gaining the most traction. Was the detailed email about product benefits more successful than the simple mobile push reminding the consumer to continue with their purchase? The key here s that you need to know which conversions resulted from which versions of the message. You can tag each user with the variant they got, or you can use a tool like Outbound that does this automatically and then shows you how each variant performed, like this:
Notice the last group, the control group. This is a critical part of testing too: without a control group (which doesn't get the message), you won't know if users are converting because of the message. Imagine looking at the diagram above without the control group; we have nothing to compare the top groups to, so we don't know how much improvement came from the messages.
4. Determine whether the message is worth sending at all.
Don't expect to get it right the first time! Every seasoned marketer and product person has sent dud messages to customers. You think you have a great idea but are surprised when your audience doesn’t agree. The important thing is to know you're sending a dud and quickly try something else. Without the proper analytics in place, you have no way to know how your message is being received.
Too many companies send out messages like throwing a dart at a target – blindfolded, best guess. And the target is moving; your customer and product is changing all the time. But if you follow the process above consistently, you will not need anyone to tell you the best practices you should follow. You will build your own, proven best practices.