Computers, databases, and the internet have allowed business to have unprecedented access to huge markets. We can reach millions of prospects with our messages, or at least we have that potential. But has this been a good thing? Along the way we seem to have lost the personal touch that consumers once enjoyed. But it doesn’t have to be that way! We can reach the mass market but still treat each customers as an individual. Many companies have made great strides in individual customer interaction. So why aren’t more companies marketing to the individual? Google is, without a doubt, but B2B marketing has been slower to turn the huddled masses back into individuals. It’s time to give people their identity back, even in the business world.
200 years ago a customer walked onto a local shop on the high street and was greeted by name. The shop-keeper knew him (or her) because they shopped regularly at that store. The shop-keeper knew what their buying habits were, knew about their family life, and would often suggest new arrivals that might be of interest to the shopper. Personal service at its best.
Factories rose, cities swelled, and companies looked to expand their available market. Mail order catalogs expanded the reach to the consumer, and improved methods of transportation made distribution between business and consumers more effective. The small, personal interaction was beginning to be replaced by more impersonal means: mail, telegraph, and even telephone. Yes, telephone is still immediate and personal to an extent but not as much as face to face conversations.
Transporting goods had become easier, and distant communication had improved. Managing a large and distributed customer base, however, still required many, many paper records. Possible, yes, but cumbersome. As business looked for better ways to manage their information they turned first to mechanical means like punched cards and then eventually to electronic formats as computers started to appear. Information was collected, aggregated, and shared. It was now possible to market to huge numbers of people that you knew nothing about via direct mail and then email. The golden age of spam had begun.
Today, however, we are able to track individuals and their behavior – whether consumer or business. Google drops cookies on your computer, even if you aren’t logged into Google, and watches what you do. This is why ads for waffle irons follow you all over the internet after you have looked up a recipe for waffles. Phone companies watch where you go. Stores track what you buy. There is a huge amount of information available about everyone, and the potential to track behavior to acquire more. It is possible to know exactly who you are reaching out to and what their interests are. Google does this to great effect, but even the lowliest B2B company has the ability to buy and/or collect data about their customers as well.
The end result is not merely the creation of random information, but a true win win situation. The customer gets communications that they actually want, and the companies who are marketing get to engage in more targeted, effective interactions. Large companies are getting much better at this, some with simple opt-in panels that let the user select their interest, some with actual data about the individual. Smaller companies are lagging behind but can apply many of these techniques as well.
Having the data is not enough, however, you need to use it. If you know the customer’s birthday, why not send them a “Happy Birthday” email or, even better, an actual card in the mail? If you know that a customer lives in Boston and they just had a huge snow storm, think about sending them a calendar featuring pictures of beaches (o.k., that’s actually just mean) or even just a “hope you are surviving the recent storm” note. Of course, you need to be careful about what information you do act on. It’s fine to comment on the weather where I work. It might be borderline to act on my birthday if I never told you. It would be super creepy to comment on my brand of toothpaste. You will have to judge where the line is for your business and your customers.
But in the end, the key is too think back to that time 200 years ago and ask yourself, “What would the local shop keeper do?” And make each interaction human. Don’t send out one email to 10,000 people. Send out 10,00 individual emails. Because one size just does not fit all.