Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2010

It's Always an Election Year

I need a drink!
                                                         Not today, the bars are closed.
                                                         It's election day, that's the law.
Who made this law?
                                                         The people voted for it.
That's carrying democracy too far!

     -- W. C. Fields, "The Day I Drank a Glass of Water"

In the world of politics, this is a big election year.  Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on TV ads, placards, overpriced fundraising events...until we're all sick of it.  Very special marketing techniques work in these high-stakes biennial contests.

You'll be relieved to know that we're not going to be talking about that at all this month.

What we will talk about is product and service marketing, where there isn't a big periodic judgment day driven by a formal voting event.  Instead, there's a continuous process where customers vote with their feet...every day, at every stage of the transaction.  It's always an election year.

Unfortunately, most companies have no formal and limited informal voting systems for their customers and prospects.  They can't hear what the voters are saying, and they can't really measure what they're asking for.  In honor of the landmark legislation passed 45 years ago this month,* we're calling this issue...

The Voting Rights Act

The first thing you've got to do is think of voting as something we all do every day, implicitly through how we prioritize, how we spend our time, and where we engage in transactions (or not).  So instead of asking your customers and prospects for an explicit vote, you need to listen much more carefully to discern when they have made a choice, and decode what it means.

This means you need to have a much more systematic way of tracking and managing user responses.  The core technologies you'll need: a CRM system, a marketing automation system, a web content-management system with good web analytics, integration with your ERP and customer support system, and probably a data warehouse.  But all of these will be rendered nearly powerless if you don't have a consistent way to identify your users and prospects:  you need to attribute the series of choices and votes to individuals, even if you don't know much about them yet.  Start with a cookie, and move to using a validated email address once you've convinced the prospect to register with you.  Of course, some user communities tend to disable cookies and refuse to give you an email address.  Some of that comes from community culture, some of it is -- surprise! -- their first vote.

People won't give you any good identifier information unless they think you are halfway relevant to their interests and believe you are trustworthy.  Developing this with the user can take a while, and little things can really get in the way of a trust-building user experience.  Be patient:  trust nurturing is the first part of any effective lead-nurturing system.  Prospects and customers are not on the same calendar as you, and will take the right actions only when it's important to them

Classically, the best way to get user identification info is to start very small, and ask only for the prospect's email address in exchange for something of value.  Be willing to give away most of the content you'd give out at a tradeshow without requiring registration, but make sure that the "totally open" content includes tempting references to more in-depth material.  Provide the URL for that cooler, more interesting content right in the doc text.  And when the reader clicks, they discover it's time to provide a valid email in order to download the goodies.  Don't send the requested document(s) as attachments, as this will often trigger email filters (and are impossible to read on a mobile device where as much as 50% of your prospects read their mail).  Instead, send the link to the document in a plain-text email.  Of course, an HTML URL would be nicer... but those trip the spam filters as well.  Initially, ask the user to opt-in to a relevant newsletter, but be very clear that this will not result in spamming or a sales call.  Do not ask for a blanket opt-in, because it's too early in the relationship to ask for that.  Way too many people will opt-out:  they're already inundated with junk mail, and in the low-trust world we live in you have to assume they'll simply say no.

The next time they return to download something, they're voting again.  In exchange for any document they request (even if, for others, it would be in the clear), ask for one more piece of information, such as state and country.  Each time they return, this progressive registration technique gets them to gradually give you a ton of up-to-date information, including their preferences regarding newsletter subscriptions, etc.  Of course, from day one you must respect their privacy.

Much of the mechanics of all this can be handled with a good CRM system integrated with a solid marketing automation system.  In addition to the explicit profile-based scoring that sales is typically asking for (e.g., "give me just Director and VP job titles"), add the implicit behavioral-based scores (e.g., "add ten points when they watch this video").  But for real voting, you need to take it further, tracking the timing and details of each customer and prospect interaction.  The standard scores are a nice summary, but the numbers degrade over time and they can't give you the time-series detail you need to see the voting patterns.

Once a lead is nurtured, converted, and handed off to the sales team, you've got to deal with a new layer of the problem.  The sales interactions tend to be much more personal and are poorly documented.  Make sure that every customer email conversation is captured in the CRM system (via "auto attach" features like Email2Salesforce), and integrate your phone system so that every dial from the desk phone is instrumented for customer ID, time / date, and length of call.  Of course, you can't capture everything automatically (some reps make half their calls from their mobile), so provide incentives for the reps to at least record theoutcome of every conversation (because that's where the vote is).

During the closing part of the sales cycle, every quote and contract version is a voting occasion.  The blow-by-blow detail of these negotiation cycles needs to be recorded in the CRM system.

Since Customer Voting is a Process...

Once the deal is done, there's even more opportunity for collecting and understanding how the customer is voting.  Instrument and measure these things:

  • Once the deal is signed, how long does it take before they actually install or start using your product?  Look at the logs of your post-sales support people or your license fulfillment server for indications of activation.
  • How long is it before their first support call?  Assuming you have a quality product, the bulk of support calls comes when the customer is trying to overcome the initial learning curve.  Of course, track any support interactions, and use a brief customer satisfaction survey at the close of every case.
  • How long is it before they register for training? 
  • If there are add-on products from you or 3rd-party vendors, do everything you can to identify which products are in use, and when they are installed.
  • If you can, add a call-home feature to your hardware or software to send anonymous statistics in to your CRM system.  You'll need to get the customer's authorization for this, but everyone in high tech understands that support engineers need baseline statistics to provide better product support.
  • If your offering is Software as a Service (SaaS), you've got a special advantage:  every mouse click is already measured and tracked by your application.  Get engineering to put in fine-grained logging of every single page of your product and help system, so that you can see the features that are popular, identify the ones that cause users the most trouble, and detect usage patterns that are highly correlated with customer satisfaction problems.
  • If you have a retail channel, provide ways for the customers to provide you input in real time.  If you're flush with budget, you can make an iPhone app.
  • Set up a voting system in your customer forums and portals.  The first step is to set up a simple survey system to ask users questions (offering a small sweepstakes every week, with a free book or t-shirt as the response incentive).  The second step is a product or service suggestions area (e.g., Salesforce's Ideas feature) to get users to submit ideas, vote on feature roadmaps, and help make tradeoffs across features, quality, performance, and delivery schedules.

Drowning in an Ocean of Data

Given the number of prospects and voting occasions, it's pretty easy to see the nightmare of trying to track every vote sequence.  So don't do that.  Instead, collect the votes continuously, summarize the trends regularly, but count the votes in detail only when you need to answer a specific question.  While you could store all the votes in your CRM system, that's detrimental to performance ... and the built in reporting tools just won't be up to the task.  This means you need to have your data warehouse set up for easy ad-hoc queries, typically using a business intelligence tool.

Think this sounds expensive?  Think about what profit is:  customer lifetime value minus cost of customer acquisition.  By listening to customer votes, you encourage more loyalty (increased customer lifetime value) and improve marketing and sales effectiveness (lowering the cost of customer acquisition).  That's a formula even your CFO could love.  


*Although the bill was not signed into law until August 1965, by June of that year it became completely obvious that it would hit President Johnson's desk.  You may not agree with all of the Act's provisions (it is, after all, an Act of Congress...and the Senators from Dixie always pronounced it the "Voting Riots Act"), but nobody can deny it was a legislative watershed.

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