When you speak to and enable cus­tomer pref­er­ences, you estab­lish deeper trust, and cus­tomers begin to iden­tify with your brand. Pref­er­ence is about cul­ti­vat­ing a two-way dia­logue with cus­tomers. Use your cus­tomer insights to cre­ate dig­i­tal expe­ri­ences that reflect indi­vid­ual tastes and pro­cliv­i­ties. Invite cus­tomers to voice their pref­er­ences, and pay atten­tion. The more your cus­tomers inter­act, the more your chan­nels should come to resem­ble them.

This is my third in a series of posts on the prin­ci­ples of experience-driven com­merce, or com­merce inte­grated with rel­e­vant and engag­ing con­tent. Inter­ac­tiv­ity and insight form the first two pil­lars, and rep­re­sent the ongo­ing work of engag­ing your cus­tomers and deriv­ing rich, mean­ing­ful data from their behav­iors. The third pil­lar ispref­er­ence—a more advanced phase of per­son­al­iza­tion and engage­ment that helps brands fos­ter last­ing cus­tomer loyalty.

Here, I answer three ques­tions about how to bet­ter under­stand and derive true value from cus­tomer preferences.

Q. Will cus­tomer pref­er­ence make or break you?

A. That depends on how well you’re listening.

If you have not adopted preference-based per­son­al­iza­tion, your rel­e­vance, engage­ment, and con­ver­sion rates are likely suf­fer­ing. Accord­ing to research from the E-Tailing Group, “40 per­cent of con­sumers say they pre­fer buy­ing from retail­ers that cater to their pref­er­ences.” This includes tar­geted prod­uct rec­om­men­da­tions, per­son­al­ized emails, and tai­lored offers across all chan­nels. The rea­sons are both simple—personalization makes it eas­ier for shop­pers to find what they like—and complex—tailored expe­ri­ences can enhance the emo­tional con­nec­tion indi­vid­u­als cre­ate with your brand.

Despite the many ben­e­fits, it’s pos­si­ble for brands to shoot them­selves in the foot with pref­er­ence. For exam­ple, over the years sham­poo com­pa­nies have catered to a gen­eral con­sumer pref­er­ence for sudsi­ness. This has led to com­pe­ti­tion to be the sudsi­est bot­tle out there, even though the sci­ence shows that a thick lather leaves behind residue. More recently, nat­ural hair care com­pa­nies have decided to buck the trend and edu­cate con­sumers on the ben­e­fits of chemical-free con­coc­tions, which clean and nour­ish hair bet­ter than the suds.

The key take­away here is that there are mul­ti­ple ways to respond to cus­tomer pref­er­ences. Sham­poo com­pa­nies can hear the pref­er­ence for suds, and make sudsi­ness their num­ber one pri­or­ity. Or, they can dis­cern con­sumers’ under­ly­ing pref­er­ence for effec­tive clean­ing and healthy results, and change their mes­sag­ing to show how their prod­uct does a bet­ter job of actu­ally ful­fill­ing these desires. Ulti­mately, deliv­er­ing a qual­ity prod­uct that reflects a deeper under­stand­ing of cus­tomers’ pref­er­ences will lead to brand loy­alty and longevity.

Get­ting pref­er­ence right requires care­ful, unbi­ased test­ing and analy­sis, and the abil­ity to inte­grate the pref­er­ence data into your mes­sag­ing and mar­ket­ing goals with­out com­pro­mis­ing your core brand iden­tity or prod­uct quality.

Here’s a help­ful guide for nav­i­gat­ing cus­tomer preference:

  • It’s always use­ful to know your cus­tomers’ preferences.
  • It’s often reward­ing to meet their desires.
  • It’s some­times bet­ter to chal­lenge or edu­cate the cus­tomer (and your company).
  • It’s never worth com­pro­mis­ing the qual­ity of your prod­uct or cus­tomer experience.

Q. How does pref­er­ence impact content?

A. It’s in the details.

Pay­ing atten­tion to cus­tomer pref­er­ence will draw your atten­tion to details of con­tent mar­ket­ing you never thought about. Arun Sivashankaran writes:

“It’s a sim­ple thing—but some­times the fric­tion or dis­con­nect between your con­tent and your audi­ence isn’t the writ­ing, video, or con­tent itself. It’s how it’s pack­aged. We make con­stant assump­tions about how well we know our customers—sometimes based on his­tor­i­cal data, some­times on gut instinct, some­times on our own pref­er­ences. Design and copy are two areas where test­ing those assump­tions can have a sig­nif­i­cant pay off.”

Pref­er­ence helps you let go of your own aes­thetic and func­tional biases and let con­tent bet­ter reflect the peo­ple you are cre­at­ing it for in the first place. Cus­tomer pref­er­ences can impact where con­tent appears and how it is deliv­ered to the reader, whether through social media feeds, blogs, forums, land­ing pages, email, push noti­fi­ca­tions, or geolocation-activated alerts. They can also impact the length of con­tent, ratio of text to graph­ics, shar­ing and com­ment inte­gra­tions, gam­i­fi­ca­tion ele­ments, and more. Some audi­ences pre­fer bul­leted fac­tual infor­ma­tion in a digestible for­mat, oth­ers pre­fer highly inter­ac­tive enter­tain­ment they can tweet to their fol­low­ers, and oth­ers fall some­where in between.

Some­thing all cus­tomers pre­fer is to feel gen­uinely val­ued by a com­pany, and not like they’re being pumped for all they’re worth. Researchers from sev­eral uni­ver­si­ties dis­cov­ered that “cus­tomized offers are often less attrac­tive than offers that con­sumers believe hap­pen to fit their pref­er­ences ‘by acci­dent,’ with­out the marketer’s intent.” This might seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but it makes sense when you place it in con­text of cus­tomers’ sus­pi­cion that com­pa­nies are always try­ing to “extract more value from them.” When cus­tomized offers appear to be hap­pen­stance, the roles are flipped, and cus­tomers believe they are the ones extract­ing the most value.

Unearthing cus­tomer pref­er­ences leads mar­keters to take a more nuanced, del­i­cate approach to con­tent and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Does this require greater mar­ket­ing invest­ment and ded­i­ca­tion? Yes. Is it worth the returns in engage­ment and loy­alty? Absolutely.

Q. If my cus­tomers are sat­is­fied, why should I bother with preference?

A. Sat­is­fac­tion doesn’t last.

Here’s another coun­ter­in­tu­itive bit of mar­ket­ing wis­dom from the Inter­na­tional Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Research (ICR) sur­vey, “Devel­op­ing Cus­tomer Insight: The Deter­mi­na­tion of Cus­tomer Preference”:

“We have come to real­ize that high cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion does not assure con­tin­ued cus­tomer pref­er­ence. Sat­is­fac­tion research over the past fif­teen years demon­strates that high sat­is­fac­tion scores … often serve as insuf­fi­cient pre­dic­tors of sus­tained pref­er­ence or what is nor­mally referred to as cus­tomer loyalty.”

To under­stand the dis­con­nect between sat­is­fac­tion rates and sus­tained pref­er­ence, we need to grasp the dif­fer­ences between the two. Sat­is­fac­tion is a mea­sure of how well your prod­uct or expe­ri­ence met the customer’s expec­ta­tions. Pref­er­ence is a mea­sure of how well you meet these expec­ta­tions over time; that is, of whether you can evolve to meet them again and again, in var­i­ous channels.

Pref­er­ence means the customer’s abil­ity to choose. And loy­alty comes from the customer’s belief or trust that their choices will result in a bet­ter expe­ri­ence, and even higher satisfaction.

Pref­er­ence Is More Than an Opt-In Button

Allow­ing indi­vid­u­als to opt in and out of com­mu­ni­ca­tions shows that their voice means more than your own, and cus­tomiz­able site fea­tures show you’re not try­ing to con­trol their behav­ior. These basic forms of pref­er­ence enable­ment are a start, but I think mar­keters can get far more cre­ative, turn­ing pref­er­ence into a pow­er­ful form of engage­ment, delight, per­son­al­iza­tion, and loyalty.

With this third pil­lar of experience-driven com­merce, we begin to tran­scend the trans­ac­tion and achieve a more mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion with con­sumers. Stay tuned for the fourth and final pillar—aspiration—to learn how to make that con­nec­tion even stronger.

 For more information, visit my blog here: http://blogs.adobe.com/digitalmarketing/author/loni-stark/