In-bound or In-terruption Marketing?

Inbound marketing is a hot topic. Fifty-eight percent of the firms Forrester Research surveyed in 2005 said they practice inbound marketing, while another 27% planned to do so by the end of 2006. But what are these firms really doing under the banner of inbound marketing?

One man’s inbound marketing message may very well be someone else’s interruption (see David Meerman Scott’s Interruption Marketing Hall of Shame). My own contribution to that list was when I called my credit card provider to activate my card, and couldn’t complete the call until the rep had gone thru her cross-sell pitches.

There’s no simple answer to this dilemma — many marketers know that their customers are the best candidates to respond to sales pitches. What marketers need to perfect is not inbound marketing, but sense-and-respond marketing:

The ability to sense consumer needs and intentions based on their behaviors and actions, and to respond with appropriate advice, guidance, and offers.

Building a sense-and-respond marketing competency requires marketers to:

  • Understand context. Forrester’s research discovered that, among consumers who researched credit cards online, more used the Web to confirm the choice of product and provider that had already made, than those who used the Web to find a card from a set of providers they had already selected, or to find a card from a firm they hadn’t previously considered. Defining the context for an inbound interaction — e.g., problem resolution, status checking, product exploration, product validation — helps determine what type of message (if any) is the most appropriate.
  • Uncover demographic predictors. Customer demographics can help predict context. For example, when it comes to financial products, women are more likely to be online validating their choices, while men are more likely to be exploring. Demographic differences apply to call center interactions, as well. Older consumers are willing to spend more time on the phone, and be more tolerant of irrelevant offers. Affluent boomers, on the other hand, don’t particularly like to use the phone in the first place, and don’t want their time wasted. With their increasing use of the Web to shop, access financial accounts, and self-serve, making cross-sell offers online may be a more effective way to reach these consumers.
  • Mine customer data for trends and insights. Financial services firm USAA discovered that many customers who cancelled multiple products at one time were doing so not because of any dissatisfaction with the products or the firm, but because they were going through a divorce. This insight led the firm to change call center reps’ scripts from trying to dissaude customers from cancelling insurance policies and credit cards to offering divorce-related services. The result: Customers who remained loyal to the firm after their divorce.

The common threads in building a sense-and-respond marketing competency? Understanding the context of the inbound interaction to ensure relevant responses, and the ability to draw upon and analyze customer data to improve the firm’s ability sense the context of the interaction.

The implications of developing a good sense-and-respond capability are counter-intuitive: Suppressing a cross-sell offer, and completing the call in the most expeditious manner may actually build goodwill with the customer — and increase the likelihood that he or she will do more business in the future, while interrupting the call with an offer may have the opposite effect. Suppressing the message may be a win-win situation for both the customer and the firm — the customer’s experience isn’t interuppted, and the firm keeps call time down.

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