Loyalty. If there were any logic to the language of business, loyalty would be synonymous with profits. Unfortunately, plenty of companies struggle to find a balance between simply growing their customer base and cultivating devoted followers. It’s a challenge for businesses both large and small--even such juggernauts such as Facebook, which at 845 million members and counting, recognizes the need for a sustainable, long-term strategy  that not only keeps those users coming back, but engages them on the site longer.
It’s especially true for retailers, says Kristine Jacobs, vice president of customer success at 500Friends . “What retail does really well is optimize for conversion,” she notes. In other words, management efforts are always focused on getting shoppers to the checkout with goods in hand. Getting them to talk about their purchases with friends, not so much.
Though making a sale is measurable outcome, Jacobs, a veteran of e-commerce and digital strategy at the likes of Rich Relevance and Digitas and self-professed analytical shopper, hit on an opportunity that was being overlooked. “How retailers can optimize a long-term relationship with that consumer and extract value from all the ways customers interact with their business,” she says.
That’s one of the reasons she’s excited about her work with 500Friends. The San Francisco-based startup founded by Justin Yoshimura provides a social solution for whipping shoppers into a loyal froth beyond their purchase. 500Friends' SaaS can be customized for the retailer’s site either on the web or mobile to let merchants go beyond the "buy X get one free" punch card and reward devotees with points every time they tweet, post to Facebook, write a review, or refer their friends.
Jacobs says it's then up to the individual business to determine what to offer in return for the points, but the ROI will be tangible thanks to 500Friends’ guidance and program analytics. In an age where 62% of retailers say the ROI from their social commerce programs is unclear, according to a recent Forrester study , that’s something that can put on a balance sheet.
Since building loyalty is something any business can use more of (think staff, clients, users, etc.), Jacobs offers Fast Company readers some pointers on maximizing the measurable rewards of motivating hearts and minds.
Connect the Dots
Jacobs asserts that loyalty programs can be difficult to manage. “A really robust program takes a lot of bandwidth over time,” she says, so most businesses take the path of least resistance (and resources). Though simple promotions or microsites are easier to implement than multi-channel incentives programs, Jacobs says that thinking is tactical vs. strategic.
In order to better understand what motivates a customer, companies should offer them value beyond standard transactions and reward social sharing. “Maybe if the business knows [the user] is such an influencer, they would treat them differently,” she observes. By tracking that data businesses can “connect the dots” between their customers’ transactions and their future engagement.
Enable the Soapbox
Jacobs is a firm believer in turning loyal customers into advocates. She says businesses should enable customers to “stand on their soapbox and tell their friends.” With reviews of products, referrals, etc., the potential to reach prospects is greater than traditional advertising. “When a trusted friend provides a valued opinion, you are much more likely to go to that site,” Jacobs says.
Deepen the Relationship
Make sure that downstream transactions are also rewarded. Says Jacobs: “Retailers know it is cheaper to retain a customer than acquire a new one,” however, businesses would do well to continue to recognize and reward repeat clients. "Make sure you are treating them in a way that when they return again you are adding recognition status. It only deepens the relationship and makes them more loyal," she says.
Jacobs points out that it only takes a little creativity to be more effective at building loyalty. 500Friends challenges retailers to think beyond standard discounts when determining incentives. Exclusives, early access, and other VIP perks that are relevant and unique to that company can make the business stand out.
A recent example popped up on Facebook + Media in which the social network encouraged content providers to engage their fans by posting exclusives on their FB pages . “It may be more difficult to implement at first,” says Jacobs, “but so worth it in long run especially for those who want to move away from discounting.”
Always Reap ROI
Jacobs says that because 500Friends' platform enables the retailer to be as creative as they want, ROI is dependent on their approach. “Make sure rewards are tangible, compelling, and achievable but also that they are financially viable.”
In the case of e-commerce site Scentiments.com, a loyalty program launched in December gave members up to 10 additional points each time they included the company in updates on Facebook and Twitter. More than 2,000 shoppers signed up in the first two weeks and about 500 members started talking up Scentiments.com on social media . The company reported a lift in holiday sales directly related to the program.
Jacobs advises spend time in the strategy phase to make sure you’re going to make bank. “Any loyalty program has to make business sense.”
[Image: Flickr user abby28xyz ]