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How to Use Customer Preferences in Data Driven Marketing

It’s important to understand customer preferences in data driven marketing. A customer who has told you not to talk to them is probably not the best person to communicate with. But a customer who has told you when and/or how to contact them is a great prospect.

Many companies give customers a chance to do just this by setting up a web page where they can manage not just their contact info but their contact preferences. This is sometimes called a preference center.

The basic idea is that you want to get the customer’s permission for you to contact them when you get their contact information. After they enter their e-mail address on your website, for example, you offer a check box for them to indicate whether they would like to receive special offers or promotions at this e-mail address. If the box is checked, they are considered opted in.

Opting in versus opting out in data driven marketing

If your company has such a website or you plan to implement one, you’ll discover yourself in the middle of an amusingly (or frustratingly) persistent debate. Every marketer seems to have a heartfelt opinion on whether the check box should be pre-checked on the website. At some level opinions on this matter are somewhat subjective, like whether or not you take cream in your coffee.

But there are some points to be considered:

  • The case for pre-checking the box: You will get more opt-ins. The customer has to actually take action to uncheck the box. They may not bother or they may not even notice the opt-in language.

  • The case against pre-checking the box: If the customer has to take the trouble to check the box themselves, then they are truly interested in hearing from you. This makes them more explicitly opted in. By implication, these are higher-quality e-mail addresses from a marketing perspective.

The crux of the decision comes down to how you’re going to treat the unchecked boxes. If the box is unchecked, do you treat that as an opt-out? Put another way, is opting out the same as not opting in? Regulations are ambiguous or silent on this issue, so it really is a judgment call for you and your team.

Regardless of where you land on this issue, it’s important that you not keep changing your mind. Transparency is important in complying with regulations. It’s also important in maintaining a positive relationship with your customer. If you’re inconsistent in the way you treat the customers’ preference data, you run the risk of looking foolish or even dishonest.

Other types of preferences in data driven marketing

One reason having a preference center is useful is that it helps you prevent customers from giving you their contact information and then later opting out because you’re contacting them with messages they don’t want.

Newsletters provide a good example. A customer may have signed up for your newsletter when it was a quarterly e-mail. But you’ve since decided to publish this letter on weekly basis. The customer was fine with quarterly but is tired of hearing from you every week.

Without a preference center, the customer may have no other option than to simply opt out of all e-mail communications from you. This effectively removes the customer from any future communication. But this may not even be what the customer wants. They may well still want to hear about special discounts.

A preference center allows the customer to opt out of specific communications without completely breaking contact. You can even ask them how often they would like to hear from you.

Many large companies have another reason for using a preference center. They share customer data, in particular mailing lists, across separate corporate divisions. Take, for example, a company which runs a variety of restaurant chains. These chains are very different from each other — one may serve Mexican food and one specializes in burgers. It’s not obvious to customers that all these brands are run by the same company.

In cases like this, these three brands may all have separate marketing departments. They will certainly have separate websites. If you’re in this type of environment, you may want to consider explicitly asking customers of one chain whether they want to receive offers from the others. This information tells you which e-mail addresses you should share among the different brands.

You can make your preference center as elaborate or as simple as you like. But don’t ask for any preferences that you’re not prepared to honor. If you can’t control how often a customer is contacted, don’t create the impression that you can.

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