Making Card Marketing All About the Consumer

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The credit card industry has transformed over the last five years. The financial crisis has redefined the landscape not only in terms of lending practices, but also in how new offers are structured. The changes are attributed in part to stricter and more conservative underwriting guidelines, a new regulatory environment, as well as a consumer that is more sophisticated, yet weary, post-recession.

But one aspect of card marketing that has not changed as much or as fast as the times require is how offers are delivered to consumers.

The digital age and the constantly evolving state of social connectivity has introduced new opportunities for credit card companies to connect with customers and prospects in a more meaningful way. However, while recent advances have put more emphasis on digital marketing, most digital strategies are yet to deliver significant changes to how consumers consider and evaluate card offers.

Email, display ads and paid-search strategies woefully underperform direct mail response rates. The relatively low cost of digital marketing generates a deluge of touch points, leaving consumers feeling bombarded by unsolicited content. It's clear that credit card companies have yet to crack the code for delivering the right offer to the right customer at the right time.

It is interesting, and in some ways surprising, that direct mail is still the bedrock for acquisition marketing. But direct mail is also losing steam. During the nine years that the Direct Marketing Association has tracked response rates, overall direct mail responses have dropped more than 25%—and even more for credit card offers.

Consumers are oversaturated, especially when considering some of the staggering statistics from U.S. Postal Service. An average household receives approximately 13 offers a week. And those households that are fortunate enough to earn more than a $100,000 a year receive 21 offers a week. That's 84 offers a month, on average, for affluent households. With credit card offers taking up the lion’s share of our weekly clutter, offers from banks account for approximately 30% of all advertising mail.

So what's the missing link? Why are acquisition efforts struggling? It is not due to a lack of innovation. The post-recession environment has put more emphasis on innovation and product design than ever before. Regulatory changes and the reality of massive losses incurred during the credit crisis have forced the industry to abandon the lure of a term-driven offer in favor of tailored rewards and ancillary benefits that uniquely meet the needs of target segments.

Rather, the challenge is in the delivery. Most companies are still relying on traditional database approaches and mass communication. While a lot of analytical effort goes into creating and fine-tuning adoption models that evaluate available data on household demographics, credit capacity and transaction history, very few frameworks incorporate the actual voice of the consumer into its modeling.

In the age of big data and social connectivity, it is essential, and now urgent, for card marketers to find a way to become more consumer-centric in their marketing efforts. Without incorporating consumer preferences into how and when offers are delivered, all of the innovation and effort put into the design of the product is negated.

Consumer-centric card marketing can take on many forms. Historically, segmentations based on consumer needs and attitudes have been difficult to implement, as few have figured out the mechanics for how to append consumer preferences to customer and prospect databases.

But there is a way to merge the world of consumer feedback with the science of direct marketing. Combining financial and credit capacity data with consumer preferences and transaction history can uncover an astounding untapped potential for improved targeting efficiency.

Once financial institutions know who they need to target and the type of offers that individuals are most likely to respond to, they still have to figure out how to craft the most compelling communication. It is rarely one feature of the product that sways the decision to apply for a card. Instead, it is the sum of all parts and the interplay between all of the features that drives consumer interest. The challenge is not to overwhelm. Simplicity of the message is important and emphasis on the right components is a must.

However, the science of crafting the perfect offer has many moving pieces. Everything from imagery, color, layout, inserts and even the envelope matters tremendously. For example, offers with a targeted claim on the envelope itself can nearly double consideration rates for the offer once the envelope is opened.

Once consumer preferences are incorporated into the way companies target and communicate with the market, it is imperative to establish an ongoing dialogue and connection with consumers across target segments. After all, consumer preferences change as competition, the economy, personal situations and the market evolves. Ongoing feedback allows marketers to stay abreast of the segments and to continually evaluate, improve and align their new and existing products with the changing needs of the customer.

Historically, ongoing dialogue with consumers was a time consuming and a cost prohibitive proposition. Fortunately, the world of consumer research has also evolved over the course of the last decade. Particularly in the use of insight communities—Web-based consumer market research groups—marketers have a new framework and engine that allows them to engage consumers in ongoing dialogue. Using insight communities, marketers can target specific customer segments and engage them in an iterative evaluation of potential offers, with feedback and analysis delivered in days instead of months.

In the end, companies that embrace and incorporate the needs and preferences of the consumer into their product and marketing strategy will win share of mind, share of wallet and ultimately, customer loyalty.

Demitry Estrin is managing director of financial services at Vision Critical.

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