WDr Seusse all know (but perhaps don’t want to acknowledge) that brands shouldn’t try to build relationships with their entire customer base; there is no need to focus on the person who buys once every ten months. Instead, spend your time, effort and resources on your top 10, 20 or 30% (depending on your business), increasing your understanding of your most valuable (current and potential) customers. To do that, you must think “direct”.

To clarify, “direct” has two distinct meanings here – there are those customers who choose to buy Direct from you (vs. their local retailer); we’ll call those “BIG Ds” or simply “Directs“. And those who engage directly with your brand via the myriad channels available today (think Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and the like). They’re little “ds” or “directs“.

The way brands interact with consumers has evolved significantly (particularly with the little “ds”) because of digital channels. Brands now have access to a wealth of information from both Directs and directs, which means you have the intelligence you need to develop more relevant dialogues to drive purchase, loyalty and evangelism.

For consumer goods brands in particular, the Direct relationship is an important one – to both you and the customers who buy from you. Consumers buy directly from you because they get better pricing, have more choice, receive better service or have access to exclusives (merchandise, content, etc.). You need to understand and leverage this important base. Why? Because Directs tend to be more loyal and more vocal – therefore more valuable. To make the most of your Big D relationships:

  • Innovate. Your Direct customers provide the perfect platform for testing, measuring and refining offers, products, and interactions across channels. Want to pilot a new loyalty program or marketing campaign? Start with your Big D customers to see if it resonates; then take it to the masses.
  • Build tighter relationships. These are the consumers who matter most; they are incredibly loyal. Your Directs love you, will likely buy more from you, and also tell their friends about you. Engage them in relevant dialogues, listen to their requests and then respond to their needs. They’ll reward you with increased spend and brand advocacy.
  • Learn how these customers differ from the rest. You can’t infer that your broader base will react to communications in the same fashion as your loyal Directs. Nor can you base your media mix allocations on them alone. You can, however, use customer intelligence (insights gleaned from the data you capture, enhance or infer) to learn more about your customers. First, develop a keen understanding of the differences between your Directs and the general consumer. Use consumer insights (available via external data sources) to develop profiles of your general consumer and then map them to your Directs. Once you have a good handle on which segment(s) of your general consumers look most like your Directs, you can start to tailor your marketing campaigns (both mass and direct/digital) to reach the customers who have the potential to be more valuable. These campaigns typically yield a much higher ROI than pure acquisition campaigns.

For brands looking to strengthen their “little d” relationships with customers, here are a few suggestions and relevant examples:

  • Pay more attention to what your customers do, not just what they say. Sure, your customers can tell you how frequently they want to see communications and which kinds they’re interested in, but you need to take a good, hard look at their habits. Are they opening the emails you send? Do they favor a particular type of message/offer? What are they doing when they visit your Website? Behavioral data can paint a much different (but usually more accurate) picture of consumers’ real wants.
  • Be social. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that social is a great way to build direct relationships. But there are some best practices that will ensure your social media activities are encouraging the right types of behaviors. First, engage in active listening. Companies like Comcast and H&R Block have been doing this for years and have turned Twitter into a very effective (and efficient) service channel. Second, use hooks like exclusivity to drive engagement and purchase. Think JetBlue Cheeps. Every Tuesday, the airline offers discounted deals on last minute flights via Twitter using the account @jetbluecheeps. 271,000 followers can’t be wrong.
  • Make your Web site a DESTINATION. Many companies do this well, but Ocean Spray is a prime example of a company that truly takes heed. They’ve created a destination site that is part advertorial / part community. While they don’t sell direct, they have figured out how to engage with consumers who are passionate about their beverages. Hundreds of thousands of Cranberry Club members have access to exclusive content, including recipes, offers, coupons and giveaways. What does Ocean Spray get? Rich, valuable customer information and a fully engaged consumer base.

Hopefully now you recognize that not all direct relationships are the same. So make sure you’re spending your time, effort and precious $$ on both your Directs and your directs. Your customers – both kinds – and your bottom line will thank you.

How does your organization think about direct? Let me know either in the comments or via email at mbb (at) csgi.com.