By her own admission, Liz Miller flies a “ridiculous” number of miles with American Airlines. As senior VP of marketing for the CMO Council, which entails hosting executive functions or presenting marketing-focused research findings at global conferences and thought-leadership events, her travel schedule is as closely aligned as possible with that of a quintessential jetsetter.

Not surprisingly, Miller enjoys “elite” status as an American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum member. As the name implies, she’s set apart from the airline’s other customers, not only in travel perks and rewards, but also the types of marketing materials – and accompanying content – she receives. Those perks include quarterly updates with references to business perks and features of the American Airlines executive lounge; relaxing imagery of vacation spots in far-away places; and targeted ads on a specific country to which she frequently travels on international business.

Translation: The airline knows she’s not the typical traveler, so it personalizes the message she receives.
By contrast, Miller’s husband, also an AAdvantage program member – not of the Executive Platinum status, mind you – receives marketing materials, too. But they feature a distinct difference in content, a subtle nuance that has caught Miller’s eye. “When he gets his [American Airlines marketing materials], the content, images and promotions for destinations usually mirror what you can find on their website,” Miller says. “If they’re opening up a new route to Auckland, the cover of his brochure will be centered on Auckland. His materials will generally feature content about what they have to offer the mass populace of their customers.”

The amount of personalization contained in the airline’s communication with her leads to a point of differentiation that Miller says makes the content more appealing. “They’re talking to me about things I may need in my travel life that are very different from my husband,” she says. “Every single piece of communication, while it’s content that can be found someplace else, is highly relevant to me. And it’s probably also highly relevant to executive platinum flyers because we all tend to have the same behavior.”

The lesson in this example for marketers is simple: In a day and age where clients will only buy from those they trust and from those with whom they have relationships, one of the best ways to establish both of these key components is to appeal to one of their basic needs: personalized communication.

“It’s about making that intense relevance, because relevance drives relationships.”

– Liz Miller, Senior VP of Marketing, CMO Council

Cracking The Inner Circle

In many situations, gaining your customers’ trust requires being part of an inner circle that sometimes can be difficult to access. In a business-to-business context, one of the best ways to begin breaking down any barriers to entry is to provide valuable, quality content that gives the customer an advantage in their market, says Bill Corbett Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations Inc., a Long Island, N.Y.-based public relations and marketing firm.

“If you know what their challenges are, share with them articles, videos and other materials that will help them overcome challenges, and you will build trust,” Corbett says. “This allows for opportunities to develop and for relationships to grow.”

Corbett, a former adjunct professor at Iona College and occasional guest lecturer at other institutions, also touts personal communication as a way to crack the proverbial walls some actual or prospective customers can erect. Ironically, he says technology – likely the very culprit in the establishment of these barriers – can be helpful in facilitating the communication that can help marketers break through.

“LinkedIn, for example, offers many ways to engage in personal conversations,” Corbett says. “The key here is listening to the specific client or type of client. If you know what they are looking for or what they need, you will have a better opportunity to reach them and provide what they are looking for. Don’t hard sell; however, this does not mean don’t communicate.”

Technology, in some ways, may have gotten a bad rap in this entire scenario. “It’s not the technology that’s the problem,” Miller says, “it’s the overwhelming flood of irrelevant messages that we keep sending people and an absolute lack of connected content.”

Such content not only has to be connected to a unified message, but it also must contain a thread connecting it across channels, Miller says. “That level of connection, where we’re actually connecting all the dots between message and channel, has to also connect to something that is highly relevant to our customers.”

In many situations, gaining your customers’ trust requires being part of an inner circle that sometimes can be difficult to access.

Talk In Their Terms

“Female between ages 22 and 34.” “College graduate.” “Mother with at least one child.” “Household income between $100,000 and $125,000.”

It’s easy for marketers to think in demographic terms; after all, the analytics portion of the job almost mandates doing so. But referring to customers in such terms also accentuates the problem of relating on a personal level with customers.

It’s best to start by gaining a deeper understanding of your customer, then communicating with them in familiar terms so that they aren’t reintroducing themselves at each engagement.

“No one introduces themselves as, ‘Hi, I’m a woman between the age of 22 and 34. I come from the Midwest and my socioeconomic background is…,’” Miller says. “But that’s how we talk about our customers, then we break it down into product categories, why they are buying and their demographics. If you were to ask what that woman is buying, she would say, ‘I’m buying back-to-school products because my kids need them for school, but they need paper in packs of four, so why do you sell packs of three?’ If we can start shifting how we think about customers and why they do business with us, and talk to them the way they want to talk to us, it shifts the relationship.”

Corbett says another way to learn how to talk to clients is not to talk about business. “Find out what an individual is interested in and talk with them about this and get to know them,” he says. “Eventually, the conversation will turn to business and this is when you have an opportunity to discuss what you do, why you do it and what makes
you different.”

Communicating with clients in these terms not only softens barriers, but it shifts the company’s or brand’s relationship with the customer and drives loyalty. “We stop talking to them like they’re a catalog,” Miller says. “It encourages them to be part of the buying experience, whether it’s a long buying cycle like in B2B markets, or a short one like in B2C markets.”

Perception Is Reality

On a smaller scale, personalization is very much a grassroots effort. Corbett says plans of action include eschewing multiple e-blasts and newsletters, instead focusing on personal interactions with customers.
“Thank people personally for meetings or shares of their social content,” he says. “Call them when appropriate. When you find an article they are mentioned in, send it to them and congratulate them. If somebody does something for me, I do a social shout out. Business is a two-way street. Do whatever you can to help the client get exposure and show off what they do to your audiences.”

But on a macro scale, such personalization may not be realistic. One-to-one communication, at scale, is a scary proposition. After all, a company with millions of customers can’t possibly hire a marketing staff of millions.
But that’s OK, Miller says, because individualization isn’t the goal. It’s really about the perception of personalization. “How are we speaking to that individual so that they believe we are truly speaking to them as an individual?” she asks. “I think that sometimes people miscommunicate personalization because they think that it’s total individualization. It’s really not. It’s that mass personalization that delivers intense layers of relevance to that individual customer.”

And don’t misunderstand the message to mean that simply mail-merging a letter with customers’ first names and the city in which they live (à la the technology of the 1990s) will do the trick. That’s
bush-league in today’s marketing game.

“We’re talking about creating highly relevant moments, regardless of channel,” Miller says. “So that means that if a company is sending an email to me, Liz Miller, not only is it reflective of my history with that brand, but it also is tailor-made for me. That may be different visuals, different offers or offers that are more relevant for me than they are for someone else. It’s about making that intense relevance, because
relevance drives relationships.”