Email Marketing

Rethinking progressive profiling to find out what’s happening with your customers now

Three years ago – remember three years ago? When life was normal, and we could eat, shop and travel, and I had logged 130,000 work miles in the air and now I haven’t left home in three months …. 

Where was I? Oh, yes. Three years ago, I wrote about progressive profiling and how critical it is to any brand’s ability to react instantly or send messages to customers based on self-disclosed information.

That data has a short lifespan, but it still gives us the opportunity to ask authenticity-based questions of our subscribers and customers that relate to the present time. And, especially these days, progressive profiling can help you message effectively during a crisis.

(Read “Progressive profiling: Why it’s a win for you and your customers” for background information about progressive profiling and how to build a successful program.)

Now is the right time to renew the conversation about progressive profiling because all your other avenues of data are suspect now because they are based on pre-COVID-19 behavior.

Your data can’t tell if your customers are wearing masks, working at home, staying at home because they got furloughed from their jobs or laid off, whether they’re in their same home or quarantining with friends, parents or in-laws.

Progressive profiling can give you access to that new data right from the source: your customer.

Here are three ways to use progressive profiling to find out what’s happening now with your customers:

1. Plan for the fall

I met recently with a client that’s defining company goals for the quarter. All the executives in the room were talking about reopening the business and what the business needs to accomplish. 

My suggestion was this: “We need to plan for the fall. We need to realize what mistakes we made in the first and second quarters of this year, what opportunities we missed, what we did right and what the results were.”

They all agreed.

In the military, this assessment is called an after-action report. You look at what you did right, what you did wrong and what you can fix for the next time – here meaning in the fall, when we’re likely to be back in the thick of the pandemic. 

This will help you get in touch with your business as a whole, to get that all-important global view.

It’s critically important for progressive profiling because it makes you scrutinize your present-day situation. Yes, progressive profiling asks questions focused on demographics and brand equity. But now is the time to turn to questions that ask about the crisis and how our customers are handling it and what questions to ask.

This can be a tough job. You have to be brutally honest with yourself and not hold back for fear of incurring executive wrath. Conduct these reports at the department level, whether you work in PPC, email, social or whatever. Collect your data and join me at Step 2. 

2. Decide what questions you will ask, and how you’ll ask them

Progressive profiling operates on the premise that if you give your customers a reason to believe you care and you will do something productive with their data, they will give you much of the information you ask for. If they sense something fishy, they’ll pull back.

If I sign up for a newsletter at an auto parts website, but the site asks me for my pants size, I’ll push back. You don’t need to know that. Pick questions that are relevant in the context of your request. 

Phrase them carefully, too. Don’t ask “Are you going out or are you trapped at home?” Ask “X Brand is trying to gauge how comfortable you are in going out in public these days.”

Here’s another useful set: “Are you more likely today to order online or visit a store?” “Have you used curbside delivery? What are your concerns about shopping in public today?”

Write a list of questions and go over them again and again with your team. Ask “Is this the right question? What is the context? Is this a question my customer is likely to answer?” You don’t need a long list – maybe three to five asked over a series of emails. 

Once you have your list of questions, review them again with your management. Provide the context. Make space in your profile plan to note how you will use the data. 

Be sure the emails in your profile series explain what you will do with the data and how it will benefit them to answer your questions. If you ask about alternatives to in-store shopping, the answers you get back from your customers should inform future emails. If you learn customers love curbside delivery, your future emails can highlight that as an option.

Consumers notice when you ask for data that you don’t use and is seemingly irrelevant for your business, and they don’t like it. 

3. Decide whom to ask 

Now that you have your list of questions and your emails, who will you send them to?

Progressive profile emails get low responses across the board. Some shopper cohorts just don’t care that much about the topic. The people who do answer questions are more likely to be your true believers – the ones who are fervidly engaged with your brand or long-term loyal shoppers – or new customers.

You have the highest intent with customers at acquisition. You have a degree of trust, which you can use to ask questions in follow-up emails days after registration.

Start with these new customers and with your most loyal customers, such as those with high lifetime value or membership and activity in your loyalty program. You’ll have to set these customers up manually. For your new customers, you can add another email with the content to your automated welcome series.

This plan is not a hard-and-fast rule. You have to look at your questions you need to ask, your customers, your demographics and brand equity, and decide the best way to manage the process.

Run a test first. When you ask questions in a regular progressive profiling program, you’re going to send the email saying “Tell us a little more about yourself. In crisis communications, you’re really asking “We want you to tell us how to market to you.”

Test some potential changes. Should you send one email or two? If you want to ask five questions, should you send one question in the first email and two in the second and third messages? You might need several rounds of testing to figure out the most effective combination, but it’s important so you mitigate any problems that could arise.

If you’re an agile marketer looking for rapid reactions, you might not have time to test. If you have some flexibility, test cadence and content to find the ones that elicit the most results. We’re all learning!

Wrapping up: We need to ‘think different’

We are living in a world that’s much different from what it was just three months ago. Instead of mourning it, we should recognize that things change all the time. That’s one of the things that drew me to digital marketing 20 years ago. Buyer habits change all the time.  

Times like these call for agile marketing, and I’ve been an agile marketer before somebody came up with the term.

All of us – marketers, businesspeople, consumers – shake our heads daily for reasons ranging from politics to disease to social unrest. The customer is changing as a result of this turbulence. 

We find ourselves on unsure footing because we can’t count on the data we usually have to help us figure things out.

To borrow a long-ago slogan from Apple, we have to think different. We need to try new approaches. Progressive profiling is one way you can engage your customers to get a handle on what they’re thinking and how you can serve them better.

I’ve always believed marketers should be in service to their customers. Yes, we all want to make money and hit our KPIs. But being a good marketer means truly serving, and this is truer today than ever. 

Your data might not support you, but asking your customers these questions might get you through this crisis. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in managing through crises it’s to stop, think about the customer and ask how you can help them.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Ryan Phelan is co-founder of Origin Email and brings nearly two decades of worldwide online marketing and email experience. Ryan is a respected thought leader and nationally distinguished speaker with a history of experience from Adestra, Acxiom, BlueHornet, Sears Holdings, Responsys and infoUSA. In 2013 he was named one of the top 30 strategists in online marketing and is the Chairman Emeritus of the EEC Advisory Board. Ryan also works with start-up companies as an advisor, board member and investor.

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