Published September 8-17, 2021
Love and Loss
One of the most important commercial relationships is between a brand and its customers. Brands may not notice their customers, but many customers do notice the presence of brands in their lives. Therefore, there is an element of sadness when that relationship is broken. It is typically the customer who decides to end the relationship and move on. The sad part of this is that rarely does a brand notice, even though the signals were there much before.
A brand goes to great lengths to acquire a new customer. Plenty of ads, great offers, discounts, and very friendly messages. For the customer, it is like being caught in a whirlwind love affair. And then once the relationship is cemented, instead of getting to know the customer better, the brand moves on to the next conquest leaving the now ‘old’ customer feeling neglected. It seems like business as usual – nothing special. All those promises to spend a lifetime together – they all seem so hollow. And that’s where the separation starts. Because some other brand has started wooing the customer with ads, offers, discounts and messages. And so it goes on – the cycle of love and loss.
A few brands do manage to stop the loss and build an ever-increasing pool of customers. They become the leaders in their industry. They are the ones who are said to have erected moats. They have great customer relationships with every customer feeling they are special. Happy customers recommend others, creating a growth flywheel. These are the brands others try to copy, but with limited success.
We have experienced both kinds of brands, and the love-loss that goes with them. I may have exaggerated some of the emotions but that does not take away from the key point: most brands do a lot to start a relationship but not enough to sustain it over long periods of time. This, to me, is the mystery. It is so much easier and profitable to retain a customer than to keep moving on the treadmill of constant new acquisition. In the B2C world, a customer churn is just a statistic. (In the B2B mid-market and enterprise world, someone will at least get questioned and an inquiry will seek to establish what went wrong.)
In the pre-digital and pre-pandemic world where digital relationships constituted a small percentage of the overall base, it didn’t matter because most brands did not even know their customers. But all this has changed and will change even more in the years to come. Every relationship has the potential to become digital even for brands who sell through marketplaces and intermediaries – because every customer now has a digital identity and footprint. It is up to the brand to get to know the customer, or else newer direct-to-customer (D2C) brands will and in doing so, grab market share and customer value from laggard incumbents.
My contention is that by ignoring the power of Attention Messaging, brands are missing a key chapter in their playbook. By spending almost 10X more on the acquisition of new customers than on retention and growth of existing customers, they are simply feeding the profit machines of the tech giants (Google, Facebook, Amazon). By not building deep relationships, they are leaving their customers open to being targeted and acquired by competition, thus leaving their own future vulnerable. Attention Messaging holds the secret for brands to create the twin moats of profits and monopoly – are marketers paying attention?
I came across The Information a year or so ago by following links from Techmeme. It was a subscription site with reporting and stories from the world of tech. I subscribed to the free trial, but then did not pay the $399 annual fee to continue the subscription. I thought the relationship was over – and for a time it was. A few weeks ago, “The Information” reactivated the relationship by sending me daily updates on the Creator Economy. And as I got used to reading those, it made me an interesting offer: to continue, would I like to subscribe for the first year at a 50% discount? I agreed, and The Information and I had started a new relationship. They probably don’t know anything more about me than an email ID. I hope they get to know me – the cost of losing me after a year will be almost $400 a year!
All The Information needed to do to maintain the relationship was a few well-crafted emails that would probably have cost them less than a few cents through the interim when I had not yet activated a paid subscription. This is true for every brand and yet so few do it. Most don’t even notice when we move on – and of course, by then it is too late.
My son switched his phone from Samsung to Apple recently. Samsung doesn’t even know. They never got to know him when he bought the phone a couple years ago, and they don’t know now that he has moved on. Why would they not work harder after making such great products to build a relationship with the very people for whom they are building? Yes, there are hundreds of millions of such customers, but surely, ignoring them and not even making an effort to create a digital relationship cannot be the standard operating procedure.
Vodafone hasn’t even noticed that I, a huge consumer of their data once upon a time, barely use their data service. If they check their records, they will find me a loyal customer for 20+ years – who duly postpaid for their highest data slab. Now, two years have gone by, and I hardly have any data consumption. No alarm bells? No calls, messages or emails to inquire? Obviously, I have switched data to a second SIM (Jio, in my case). Will it be long before I port my number also? It would probably cost Vodafone a rupee a month to create a beautiful relationship with me, but…
About two-and-a-half years ago, we moved on from our Honda Accord – and Honda probably doesn’t even know it. They never really got to know us. Their service centre had my wife’s mobile number, but that’s about it. They never knew me or my son – all of us who made a say in the decision about the next car. And Honda and we were together for so many years. Did they get to know us as a family? All they had to do was to ask. They could have built such a beautiful relationship – telling us about their cars and more. If they had asked, we would have told them how much the car was part of our lives, how much we loved their leg space in the rear seats, how much we wanted to get a new Accord. They don’t even know, but we had even visited one of their new tech centres in Tokyo during one of our vacations! But, they don’t even have my email address, because they did not ask. A few rupees invested in a relationship, and perhaps they could have persuaded us to stay with the brand.
The fields of broken relationships are full and getting fuller by the day – like landfills in the world. They don’t have to. The choice is with brands and marketers, and so far most of them are voting for the new rather than the ones who are with them. They are in a game they cannot win – as precious profits are handed on a platter to the tech giants in search of more, rather than as rewards to the ones who can actually give them more.
The pandemic has upended everyone’s world. A new world beckons on the other side. Brands we once loved (airlines, hotels, destinations, multiplexes, restaurants, malls) had to be forgotten as our habits were broken. Newer brands have made their way into our lives (ecommerce, food delivery apps, OTT, games, edutech). On the other side of the pandemic and we are almost there thanks to the vaccines, our lives will be different. The pandemic has changed each of us in different ways.
I was an avid traveller. In the 12 months before the start of the pandemic, I made six US trips on Air India. As a family we must have watched tens of movies at Inox and a few at PVR. Every alternate week, we ate out at one of our favourite restaurants. We roamed Phoenix on lazy Saturday afternoons. As I look ahead, how many of those brands will come back in my life with the same intensity? How many of them have made an effort to keep their hotline with me alive? How many of them even know that I existed prior to the pandemic? It is a question each of us can answer about some of our once-loved brands. And more importantly, brands should answer about their once-loyal customers.
Air India continues to send me monthly frequent flyer mileage updates as if the pandemic didn’t even happen. Inox and PVR don’t even know about me. Agreed, at times, I made the bookings via BookMyShow, but there were plenty of times I booked directly on their website. Could they have at least kept the relationship alive and regaled me with stories from our joint past about the movies and moments we experienced together? Phoenix also doesn’t know me, and they really should. Ten years and perhaps more together. And what of the restaurants…so many of them have lost me to Swiggy and Zomato. Quattro and SpiceKlub even have me as part of their loyalty programme – they know every meal I ate. Why would they forget me so easily and hand over the relationship, profits and value to someone else?
A decade ago, it didn’t matter because few of us had a digital identity. Today, each of us has two – an email address and a mobile number. It costs so little to reach out to us and keep the relationship going – a few emails and messages will cost less than a rupee a month. For Rs 10 a year, brands can keep us engaged and delighted. Most brands chose not to – and it’s a choice they have made consciously, because they are putting ten times more money to either acquire us via the tech and media platforms, or pay as commissions to the marketplaces. In doing so, they lose the connection with us and future profits. If a brand today does not use its first contact with us to ask us for an opt-in relationship, they are making a huge mistake – because they will spend many times more in reconnecting with us.
The post-pandemic world is even more digital; many years of growth have been compressed into months. The smartphone has become a lifeline for many – taking us to places where we physically cannot. It has expanded our world of possibilities as we discover new uses of the time created by working from home. In this always-competitive world, the fast eat the slow, the smart eat the ignorant. Brands who ignore their existing customers in search of the new, brands who fail to build relationships when they have the opportunity, brands who prioritise acquisition over retention, brands who allow attrition rather than enable attraction – these brands will fall by the wayside in the years to come. A new world is surely upon us – it is a world where attention matters because our choices and distractions have exploded. Brands must face up to this world of attention recession – and the answer lies in Attention Messaging.
Marketing needs Fixing
Digital customers mean digital marketing. And digital marketing has been reduced to handing over money to Google and Facebook for acquiring new customers. And then re-acquiring them when they are lost. This creates a doom loop of spending which has meant that 90% of digital marketing budgets (which can be half of funds raised by startups and growing companies) is channelised to the tech giants. Marketers are getting locked into an arms race of spending for acquiring less valuable new customers and a growing pool of inactive customers, even as revenues and profits for the tech duopoly reach record highs. Even D2C marketers face a challenge – marketplaces like Amazon vacuum away budgets in hypercompetitive search placements.
Marketing – the art of getting attention – is broken. It has now become the act of getting new acquisitions. It is easy to spend money on Google and Facebook with their wonderful dashboards and magical targeting abilities, even as it is hard to get customers to pay attention to brand messages in overflowing inboxes. This pandemic of “attention recession” leads customers to ignore brand messages, and cuts the lifeline that marketers have to pull them back to the website or app for transactions. For want of attention, transactions are lost – and expensive acquisition takes its place where the attention is there – on and via Google and Facebook, and marketplaces.
Marketing needs to return to its roots. Customers have needs, time and money. Once upon a time, marketers captured attention through a combination of copy, imagery and creativity to grab attention, surface the need, and channel the money. As customers become digital, data and cohorts become the focus. So, while budgets have shifted from traditional to digital, marketers missed a step. Digital customers not only leave pheromones for tracking but also have an identity with inboxes. For the first time, real-time messaging was possible to a segment of one or few, a subset of the traditional “all”. The identity-inbox combo should have been utilised to ensure the cost of engagement becomes a fraction of that of acquisition.
Research has shown that a firm has a 60% to 70% chance of successfully repeat selling to an “active” customer, a 20% to 40% chance of successfully repeat selling to a lost customer, and only a 5% to 10% chance of successfully closing the sale on a brand new customer. In other words, a transaction via retention can be 3 times more cost effective than re-acquisition and 6-10 times more cost effective than a new acquisition. And retention means getting attention. By breaking (or not building) the hotline with existing customers, marketers are only left with one choice: push more and more money to Google and Facebook.
So: what can marketers do to get the attention of their existing customers? This is where Attention Messaging comes in.
The core idea of Attention Messaging is simple. Pay for attention. Pay existing customers for their attention, rather than pay many times more to the tech giants for the same attention.
To get attention, marketers need two starting points: a customer’s digital identity, and push messages. The first touch with a customer must be used to ask the customer for an email address or a mobile number. Even for brands who sell via marketplaces, an effort must be done to offer something which persuades a customer to share the basic information necessary to create a direct relationship. In fact, every product sold where the brand is not inviting the customer to engage directly with the brand is a missed opportunity.
Push messages are critical for getting the customer back to the brand’s own property (website or app). Even if brands sell their products through intermediaries, a mobile-friendly website is a must in today’s digital-first world. Creating their own subscription lists of mobile numbers and email addresses (ideally both) helps brands drive repeat business – and perhaps more profitable direct business, since marketplaces will naturally squeeze out as much profit as they can from brands dependent on them.
Unless one is a monopoly like CoWIN or has instant brand recall the way Amazon and Flipkart have, brands need push messages to get customers back to their digital properties for transactions. A mobile number enables an SMS, push notification, or WhatsApp to be sent, while an email address allows for an email to be delivered to the inbox. This is where the challenge comes in. Most customers ignore the bulk of the incoming messages. This is the “attention recession” problem.
What marketers have been missing is an easy way to reward inbox attention. This is the problem Netcore solves with its attention currency, Mu. This is what smart marketers need to adopt to counter attention recession, delight their customers and convert the 1-off transactions to a continuing relationship with greater engagement and higher repeat revenues.
Mu lets brands pay their customers for attention – in a fun way. Just as many brands reward customers with points for transactions, Mu lets brands incentivise customers for specific actions at the top of the funnel. With attention, there is no action; without action, there is no transaction. These actions could include opening a message, clicking through to a website or app, providing preferences for greater personalisation, referring friends and family, and providing feedback. Mu is a micro-currency for small actions that together can have a big impact on the brand-customer relationship by encouraging existing customers to cut through the clutter and break the cycle of attention recession. Incentives always work – no one knows this better than smart marketers. Mu is a way to move the incentives up in the funnel in a world awash with message overload. Persistent attention in the inbox is the prize for building a habit of opening and not ignoring messages – the way we always open messages from friends.
This problem has never been solved because inbox control has been fragmented. Netcore solves the problem at two levels: Mu, the attention currency, and a new inbox (“micronbox”) for Mu messages (“microns”). For too long, customers have had to divide their attention in their inboxes between personal and brand messages. Micronbox is the answer for both brands and attentive customers – a single place to find all the brand messages, with small rewards in each message to ensure they are never ignored.
The Microns-Mu-Micronbox triad is the way smart marketers can break the spending spiral of new acquisition by making attention the centre of marketing – as it once was.
A Pan-Brand Currency
Attention Messaging needs a currency to reward attention. This needs to work across push messaging channels and brands. No single brand can make it work because they cannot offer enough rewards on their own to make it worthwhile, even if they have a loyalty program. Let’s consider some of the numbers.
A typical brand sends 10-15 marketing messages a month. If 5 of them offer 1 Mu for opening emails and 3 for clicking, then the recipient earns 20 Mu for actions performed. Let’s say each Mu is worth 10 paise – this comes to Rs 2 for a brand in a single month. This will be too much hassle for a single brand to offer, but across 25-50 brands, a recipient could get Rs 50-100 worth of Mu a month, which is not insignificant. (After all, Google Pay has managed to attract huge usage for much less!) In addition, there is the fun element. There can be surprises and sweepstakes – after all, when 90% messages are being ignored, there is much greater upside than upside. Even if 5% more customers start opening brand messages and acting, it can lead to a 50% increase in traffic to the website or app.
Attention Messaging thus needs a micro-currency which will work across brands – with the focus on the inboxes which receive the messages. The idea is to get customers used to looking at the messages with interest – a delight rather than delete mindset. The Mu works as a signal – that the brand is willing to offer something in return for attention, that retention is as important as new customer acquisition. With Mu, the brand is directly rewarding the customer as opposed to paying the likes of Google and Facebook. It encourages brands to have better and deeper relationships with their existing customers. Customers in turn signal back to the brand with their opens and clicks, thus creating the equivalent of digital pheromone which brands can in turn track to make their messaging sharper.
What surprises me is that this idea hasn’t been done before. Maybe I will find out after some effort that Attention Messaging is just not important and brands are perfectly happy with the current state of affairs in their customer relationships. Or maybe I will find out that customers either don’t care about the rewards and don’t change their attention behaviour or just game the system by collecting the rewards and not changing their buying behaviour. In each of these cases, the idea will fail and we will be back to square one. But if the Mu rewards mechanism works, I think it will be a huge step-up in the brand-customer relationship and create a win-win future for both sides. Only time will tell which future scenario comes to fruition!
Start with Email
There are multiple push messaging channels: email, SMS, push notifications and even WhatsApp. The best push channel to implement Attention Messaging is email for multiple reasons. Opens can (still) be tracked on emails, though it will not work for Apple users. Given that in India Android dominates, the impact is small. Email has the best RoI of all channels. It enables rich media to be sent as part of the message. Gmail users can also be sent dynamic (AMP) messages.
There has been some concern about the resilience of email and whether the younger generation will use email in the years to come. New York Times had an article recently about how Gen Z doesn’t do email: “Despite the reasonable qualms of older generations, Generation Z — generally defined as people born between 1997 and 2012 — is pioneering the return of chaotic trends like low-rise jeans, pop-punk and Ed Hardy. But members of Gen Z do seem to agree with their elders on one thing: Email. Ugh… The shortcomings of email have only been exacerbated by the pandemic because it has replaced too much: Decisions that were once made by stopping by a co-worker’s desk have been relegated to inbox ping-pong. Some people wrote about feeling a sense of guilt for not being able to reply faster or for adding emails to their colleagues’ inboxes. Others described how responding to a barrage of emails caused them to lose track of other tasks, creating a cycle that’s at best unproductive and at worst infuriating.”
My take: death of email has been predicted for the past decade or more and it is still there with us and going strong, business messaging is finding alternate channels like Slack, Flock and WhatsApp, brand messaging has few alternatives because email is the only open platform not controlled by Big Tech or Big Telco, and at some point Gen Zers will turn 25 and realise that email is identity.
In India, which is distinctly app-first, many brands tend to ignore email and I think they are making a big mistake. Daily email usage at about 10 crore people, according to a Prashnam survey I had done, is about half of SMS and Facebook, and a third of WhatsApp. At a fraction of the cost of other channels, email continues to offer the best return for a marketer’s investment. Email innovations like AMP and the ideas I have discussed earlier (Ems and Microns) promise even greater engagement in times to come.
Marketers should start by offering rewards (Mu) with their emails. Keep the messages short and informational, make them a daily habit, and become a utility in the recipient’s life. This will ensure that a hotline is established with the customer, and that is the first step to building a lifetime relationship.
Email should be the first channel for implementing Attention Messaging. No opportunity should be lost to collect email IDs from customers – even if they are only using the app. In fact, even for customers coming in via marketplaces, brands should offer a reason to build a direct relationship with the brand – for example, additional warranty on products, future discounts, or even just rewards in the form of Mu. Collecting first-party data must be one of the most important priorities for every marketer.
Once the email channel has been set in place with the push messages, marketers can explore other channels. SMS and push notifications (PNs) are two obvious ones. While SMS will work for all marketers, PNs will only work if there is an app installed. Both SMS and PNs, like email, allow brands to control the flow of messages to customers. By prefixing info about Mu (the symbol and the total count), brands can reward customers for their actions (clicks). This will encourage more customers to be receptive to incoming messages from the brands. Not every message needs to have Mu – the idea is to make reading messages a habit and offer Mu selectively for important communications and offers.
WhatsApp can also be used in conjunction with Mu. While a very powerful channel, it does have some limitations – the cost of pushing a message is 10-30X of an email and the use cases are controlled by WhatsApp. The rapid interactivity of the channel enables chatbots to engage with customers for shopping and service. (This is where TRAI and Indian telcos missed a trick: by forcing brands to use alphanumeric sending codes, they disabled interactivity. Ironically, a decade or so ago before TRAI made its interventions, interactive SMSes on shortcodes were very popular. They used to cost Rs 3 which limited the length of the session. I wish TRAI would open up interactive SMS once again – so many interesting use cases waiting to happen! The good news is that RCS is likely to help bridge some of that gap, even though it will take some time for widespread availability.)
To summarise: Mu should become an integral part of every push messaging channel. They are a way to elicit and reward customer attention. Over time, brands can differentiate and segment customers and allocate Mu appropriately. The important thing is to get started and convert atten-shun to attention!
Love for Life
For many years, the Tata Sky set-top box was part of our lives. An extension of the TV, it delighted us with news, movies, cricket matches, live coverage of events, and much more. For the 2 TVs we had in our house, we paid about Rs 10,000 a year. And then one fine day, Tata Sky was gone. Just like that. I would have thought that they would have noticed. They didn’t.
In the years that I was a customer, all I got from them was the monthly statement mail. Towards the end of the subscription period, I would get a warning on the TV – I don’t recollect getting an email requesting me to continue. Nothing else in between. And after I didn’t renew, nothing even after that. It was like I didn’t exist and it made no difference to them whether I was a customer or not. Of course, Tata Sky has millions of subscribers – more than 20 million. So my presence and absence probably made no difference to them.
The question is: what could Tata Sky have done to retain me? It is not that the Rs 10,000 would have made much of a difference, and not everything on Tata Sky is available on OTT platforms. Imagine if Tata Sky could have become a habit in my life – like my morning cereal. They could have sent me recos about movies and shows, weekend schedules with the best offerings, suggested content on NatGeo or Discovery, and so much more. All it would have cost them is about Rs 15 a year to keep my relationship active and alive. Maybe the ‘friendship’ would have at least made me think before deciding to walk away. Maybe, just maybe, I would have continued.
Tata Sky is not unique of course. As I explained earlier, most brands are not thinking creatively about Attention Messaging. They are not using the identity info they have to build relationships. This is where the mindset shift needs to happen in the top leadership and marketing departments of brands. Discussing churn numbers and increasing acquisition budgets is not the solution. Stopping churn in its tracks (“stop loss”) by leveraging the ideas of Attention Messaging is.
It is time for Attention Messaging to have a seat at the table – just like Adtech and Martech. Attention Messaging is what will power tomorrow’s brands. It is just sending push messages by the dozen to inboxes; it is about thinking about attention, habits, deeper relationships and friendships. Financial rewards and gamification are just the icing that brings in an excitement in the thrill – like surprise gifting that we do to family and friends we care for. Attention Messaging must become the next C-suite agenda. Done right, it can nurture a lifetime of love between brands and customers – but only if it works both ways.
How can marketers get started with Attention Messaging? Here is a roadmap.
Lists: Start by figuring out the percentage of customers whose digital identities are known. For every customer, do you know their email ID and mobile number? For every new customer, are you collecting both identities? If not, this is the first initiative to start.
Budget: Create an Attention Budget budget. What is your current split between acquisition and retention-growth? If you are like the typical company, it will be close to 90:10. Begin by taking 10% of the acquisition budget and allocate it for Attention Messaging. This will be money well spent – for your existing customers.
Team: You will need a team for Attention Messaging. It can be an extension of the growth team, but it probably will need some new skills – data science and analytics, creative thinking, content aggregation and creating, and so on.
Conversations: Lift the phone and speak to some of your existing customers. Ask them what they like about the messaging you send them. What is the type of messaging they would like to receive? What will make them stop ignoring your communications? What will delight them? It is amazing the kind of insights one can get by talking rather than just looking at numbers.
Email: The first channel to consider for the Attention Messaging program is email. Email has been around for a long time but has been largely neglected in India. All the more reason to break the mould and make the best use of it. Microns (emails with rewards) need to be well-crafted and part of a sequence, rather than just one-off activities. That’s why it’s important to think about a day in the life of your customer. What can you do to get a 15-30 seconds slot in that life and thus break through the attention recession?
Expand: The program can later be extended to cover other channels which are integral to your communications. You can also expand the coverage of the actions – for example, reward customers for sharing personal preferences, and incentivise them for referrals.
Analyse: At every stage, measure. Over time, the best metric for success is customer retention and growth. Figure out how to track these numbers. And as you see progress, shift additional budgets from acquisition to Attention Messaging.
First-Party Data: As you drive the program, make sure you never miss an opportunity to strengthen your direct access to customer data. First-party data is worth its weight in gold – as long as you can retain the customer.
VRM: As you get the attention of customers, consider creating a Velvet Rope Marketing program. This focuses on the most valuable customers – the top 20% who can deliver 60% of revenues and 200% of profits. A combination of Attention Messaging with VRM can lay the foundation for a profits monopoly (“profipoly”). Deep customer engagement and continuous attention of your Best customers are the best possible moats you can create.
Attention Messaging is a new idea – and yet an old and obvious idea. Think Attention and Retention, not Attrition and Reacquisition. The surprise is that few are doing it. You have an opportunity to pioneer these ideas and build the best protection that a growing business needs – happy customers who pay attention to you and stay for a lifetime!