Sunday, 7 December 2008

Ask and you shall receive

One of the things I've noticed in the last couple of months is how worried people are about saying the wrong things. Robert Peston, the BBC Business News editor had covered the story of the credit crisis since the beginning and was credited with breaking the news of discussions between the banks and the government about a bailout which then resulted in the share prices of the banks in question free falling.

Over the following weeks it became difficult to tell if the media was reporting things they saw happening or causing things to happen. A number of commentators began to point the finger at Peston with some suggesting that he inflamed the situation rather than just reporting it.

When George Osborne, shadow chancellor discussed how the governments high borrowing could lead to a collapse of the pound he was accused of "talking down the pound" – so worried were people that simply saying it may be so might make it so.

In an article in the Telegraph the reporter denied that the media can cause a recession just by talking about it and then went on to say that what causes recessions is the relative optimism or pessimism within the economy – without seemingly connecting that peoples view of the economy is dictated by what they read in the press or see on the TV.

Whether the current slowdown is being influenced in any way simply by what the media say will always be hard to measure, but as any marketer knows, if you want someone to do something you simply have to ask them - unlike the media it seems, marketers do understand the power of suggestion.

Some quite scary research from Stanford University found that in tests with pre-school children, anything wrapped in a McDonalds label was rated as tasting better – even carrots and milk. Almost 77% of kids preferred the fries when wrapped in McDonalds packaging versus 13% when not. It would seem that telling kids McDonalds has great food repeatedly via TV advertising actually affects their ability to taste!

Looking at more direct suggestions, an incentive programme we ran a few years back for a credit card company was based around a simple statement – "can I put that on your <card name>". Just by asking the customer for a specific brand of card, we saw a huge lift in usage of that brand – for which the retail staff were rewarded. Card issuers spend a lot of money on direct marketing and loyalty programmes to encourage their card to be front of wallet and yet that can so easily be undone simply by getting the retailer to ask for a different card at the point of sale.

On the flip side I've seen marketing programmes which don't seem to be getting cut-through with customers. On one programme regular, glossy marketing materials were being sent to customers but there was no change in behaviour either within control groups or pre/post mailing. When reviewing the marketing materials it was clear to see why – there was no call to action – the customer didn't know what they were expected to do. The marketing materials were focusing on what the customer could get within the loyalty programme, without telling the customer what they needed to do in order to achieve it.

The call to action is the basis of direct marketing - if the communication asks the recipient to take a specific action, for instance calling a free phone number or visiting a website, then this is considered to be direct response advertising.

Whilst this is understood by direct marketers, it is sometimes overlooked by loyalty marketers. At all touch points within a loyalty programme the customer needs to understand what is expected and actually be asked to do it. Whether this is training the employee to say "do you have a loyalty card" to every customer so that the customer gets the card out of their wallet (or signs up), or sending communications with a clear call to action which maximises participation.

Having a clear call to action is probably even more essential in the current climate. With so many pessimistic messages being put forward by the media, anyone wanting a customer to actually make a purchase is going to have to be clear and concise about what the customer needs to do.

Being a little optimistic will probably help as well!