The 4 R’s

When two former Bain consultants and one recently minted Harvard MBA started AIR MILES Canada, we knew a lot about the economics of customer loyalty and how to quickly understand and model the profit drivers of almost any business. We also knew almost nothing about database marketing other than a few buzzwords one of us picked up from a girlfriend who had launched several magazines.

One thing we felt we did know for certain was that if we could build a broad based coalition of leading Canadian companies who committed to market the program to their customers, we would have the opportunity to create and utilize one of the world’s best marketing databases. All of our friends got that as well; and every one of them thought we would “make a ton of money selling the database.” What they didn’t get was our founding principal of not selling the “list” to businesses outside of the Sponsor coalition (i.e. the companies who paid for the points). We believed we could create the future of database marketing (although we didn’t have a clue as to how we were going to do that), but only if we developed a relationship with our Collectors built on trust.

Before long, we began to talk about the 4 R’s of Relationship Marketing and sketching this diagram on napkins and tablecloths around Toronto, Montreal and Calgary:

The 4 R's

We described our thinking about building relationships like this:

  1. If we recognized that when people showed their AIR MILES card at a retail Sponsor we were rewarding them for both their loyalty to the Sponsor’s business and the fact that they were sharing information with our company (by purchasing the good or service and identifying themselves as an AIR MILES Collector, they were telling us when and where they made the purchase, if they were responding to a targeted offer or coalition promotion, etc.), and…
  2. If we respected the information Collectors shared with us – including demographic and shopping intention information millions shared with us through surveys in return for bonus miles – and didn’t sell or give that information to anyone outside of the AIR MILES coalition (and not even other Sponsors if so requested), and…
  3. If we used the information to present relevant offers to Collectors based on their shopping habits, needs and interests (if a Collector was turned down for an AIR MILES Mastercard, we wouldn’t send them additional bonus offers to apply for one; if we knew there were only guys living in a household, we wouldn’t send them offers for a woman’s magazines; no car, no Goodyear offers, etc.), then…
  4. We would create higher open, read and respond rates to both our basic offers as well as our targeted specific offers and bonuses, which would – in turn – give us the opportunity to continue to reward both loyalty and the sharing of information.

If you think about this simple model, it doesn’t just apply to relationship marketing, but also to basic human relationships as well. If you begin to develop a relationship with someone and share something personal and confidential with them, that relationship will be short lived if they share it with others or otherwise don’t respect your confidence.  We tend to develop relationships with people we have at least something in common with – some point of relevance – be it kids, snowboarding or web 2.0. If these 2 elements are present, the potential for a relationship exits; without them, one probably won’t develop.

The 4R’sl, along with a lot of other parts of the AIR MILES model, appears to have worked fairly well as the program now has over 70% (that’s 9 million) Canadian households as members. More pointedly, while I was CEO, we had open rates for our (snail mail) direct marketing programs of over 70%. Although AIR MILES doesn’t share specific data on email response rates, my understanding is the company still enjoys high open and click through rates for their email marketing programs.

Which brings me to Facebook, Amazon and Eons. Like Jeremiah and many others, I was amused to be served up a banner ad on Facebook last spring for “Thirty Plus and Single” when on the same page I clearly listed my status as “married.”

Facebook was clearly not getting the relevance part and I don’t need to go into all of the respect angles violated by Beacon. Business Week had a good article on the social networking sites’ challenges with developing advertising.

Like many, I use a separate email account for marketing emails. Last week, as I was cleaning them out, I found 2 other examples of online businesses not getting the 4 R’s from Eons and Amazon.

John Della Volpe, the founder of SocialSphere, always thought one of the challenges facing Eons was that many people over 50 aren’t really excited about standing up and telling everyone, or joining a social network for those over the hill. Do people really like to say, “Hey, I’m old?” Partially because I’m in the business, partially because I know Jeff through our work with Year Up, and partially because I was eligible (even before they lowered the age threshold) I joined Eons. But I never really got the value proposition. At least AARP’s mailings tell you right up front about discounts and other offers they bring. Not terribly hip, but getting a deal on anything will always be relevant to me.

So imagine how jazzed I was to open an email only to be greeted with an offer to “get pictures of your grandkids” or something like that. Surely, they have some way of knowing I am probably a couple of decades away from being a granddad. Not relevant and not the kind of email someone like me would open again.

Then Amazon, who has many features I dearly love and admire (Amazon prime may be the world’s best loyalty program – more on that in a future post) sends me an email with a recommendation to buy a case for the flip video I recently purchased.

So what’s wrong with that? Take a look at the user ratings – 2 STARS! This one stood out to me because I had already checked out the product and knew it was a dud. Amazon served up the “people who bought this product also looked at these” content when I was purchasing the flip. After seeing the 2 stars and reading a couple of reviews (e.g. “This pouch is really cheaply made, hard to use, and not worth the money at all”), I didn’t bite.

Back to our core principle – building a relationship requires a foundation of trust. As John Lederer, the longtime leader of Loblaws supermarkets often said, “the consumer has given us their trust to select products for them to be available in our stores.” Although Amazon sells many products through third party retailers and clearly lets you know they are not being sold by amazon.com, it’s one thing to sell products you have little control over and another thing completely to send an email to a highly active customer recommending a product other customers have given a 2-star rating. I have come to trust that Amazon will offer great products and extraordinary service. I have been less enamored with their recommendations and – given this latest example – am even less likely to look at their recommendations or open their emails.

The more time I spend in this space, the more I realize that on-line community builders and advertisers can learn a lot from those of us that also spent time in the traditional direct mail and loyalty space. In true web 2.0 fashion, combining the best of both models will create the most effective strategies.

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