Four Principles of E-commerce for Every Marketer: Preference

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 is preference—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:

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.