Tread carefully if you want to try relationship marketing

Relationship marketing is the holy grail of the modern marketer – but if you get it wrong, you will annoy your customers forever

[Debre Barrett is my wife and also an excellent experience designer, with many years experience at and some great Flow projects under her belt too. She wrote this post.]

Something awful happens to babies at exactly 5pm every day. They cry, they niggle, they scream. They drive you nuts until you’ve bathed them, fed them, and put them to bed. Suicide Hour, is what a friend and mother of four calls it.


One evening last week, at 5.45pm, I was busy preparing a puréed meal for the baby, a proper meal for myself, and a meal where none of the ingredients touch each other for my older daughter. The baby was perched on my one hip, exploring the boundaries of Suicide Hour. The older one needed help working the DVD, and there was only 1 hour 15 minutes between me, a glass of red wine, and a sit-down with Twitter.

Then the phone rang. It was a friendly, middle-aged lady.

Lady: “Oh hello there Mrs Barrett. I’m just calling to congratulate you on the birth of your little one, they are such blessings aren’t they? What did you have, a little boy or a girl?”

She was calling from Pampers. And I gave her an earful.

In South Africa, as in the UK, you get a free bag of baby goodies at some point in your pregnancy, or just after the birth. This bag is filled with samples of breast pads, nappies, bum creams and other products that are entirely unfamiliar to the unsuspecting new parent. It is a clever marketing tool, because it reaches a potential customer at exactly the moment when she needs to make purchasing decisions about a whole range of products that she has never encountered, and possibly didn’t even know existed. (Breast pads being a case in point.)

All they want from you in exchange for this ‘free’ bag of delights, is your name, address and phone number. It seems a small price to pay.

This is called relationship marketing. This type of marketing seeks to establish a long-term ‘relationship’ between the vendor and the customer. In order to really foster the relationship, the vendor needs to know some vital information about the customer and be able to act on that information over a period of time.

Like Pampers knowing the birthday of my baby.

In the UK, with my first child, Pampers sent me a parcel about 3 or 4 times over the course of the first two years. Inside: a booklet about my child’s development, and a free nappy. Children grow at a very predictable rate, and these free nappies arrived at exactly the right times. When the baby was about a year old and refused to lie down to have her nappy changed, Pampers sent me a pull-up nappy in the post and I wasted no time getting to the shops for a whole bag of these. It was relationship marketing at its best, because it was relevant and unintrusive.

Compare the efforts of Pampers SA, who intruded on my day at such an inconvenient time that I didn’t even bother to find out what they were trying to sell me.

Subaru & Toyota: Spamming me with no chance to opt out
Subaru: Spamming me with no chance to opt out

If you want to do relationship marketing, you need:

  • A good understanding of your customers. If Pampers had spent even a small amount of time talking to new mothers, they would have known not to call at the arse end of the day.
  • A non-intrusive approach. Interruption-based advertising, like the ads that interrupt your favourite TV show, is fast losing favour in the modern world. A phone call to someone with a small baby is going to be intrusive at just about any time. (Oh that marketer who called and woke the napping baby! The swearing! The abuse!)
  • A relevant message. So you know I’ve had a baby. Sending me a nappy is relevant. Offering a test drive of a bigger car is relevant. Information about childhood development, common illnesses, paediatricians in my area, different approaches to education… the list goes on.
  • I am not your friend, I am your customer. I have no desire to chat on the phone with someone pretending we are best chums. Get to the point and sell me what you want to sell. Don’t try to pretend that our ‘relationship’ is anything other that that of a customer and a vendor.
  • Don’t spam. The more emails you send, the less likely I am to read them. Send relevant emails at appropriate times. And for goodness’ sake, don’t sell my email address to others.
  • Give me an opt out. South African marketers seem to think that bombarding potential customers with text messages will eventually get them a sale. No. All it will do is annoy the customer to the point of distraction. Make sure I can easily opt out of your sms and emails, before I start to really hate you.

Seth Godin talks about all this in his book Meatball Sundae. The time for marketers to be disrespectful to customers is over. The time of interruption-based advertising is over. If you annoy me, our ‘relationship’ is over. And if you annoy me enough, I’ll blog and tweet about it and your foolishness will be broadcast to the big wide world.

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