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COVID-19 And Loyalty: Three High Impact Program Moves To Make Now

The COVID-19 crisis is slowly entering its next phase and governments are cautiously planning for reopening. The future is uncertain about both the pandemic and how people will readjust to life, work and purchasing the things they need.

The challenge with this event is that there is no single path forward. We’re all facing an array of outcomes and contexts for emerging. That’s disorienting for consumers and decision-makers. However, both planning for potential scenarios and taking timely action are moves you can make now.

The tone of conversations that we are having with clients is changing. 

We’re going from “What do we do now?” to “What should we do next?” In those conversations, we’re finding that sharp loyalty+CRM strategies are the best way to re-engage. Relationships with your very best and most committed customers can help you find the north star for what next looks like for all customers.

We frame client discussions on three key areas, adjusting by category and brand.

1. Know that loyalty data is not on pause. New, actionable relationships are forming every day. 

Whether your category is all but stopped, like airlines and hotels, or seeing a surge in sales like groceries or CPG brands with cleaning and hygiene products, customer data is describing what’s happening now, AND it is a predictor of what the future may hold.

For brands seeing sales growth and an influx of new customers through online services, now is the time for brand tracking. Capture data, understand it, and build bridges to retain those customers. You’ve demonstrated the value of your services and must do the same through the added value of your loyalty experiences and communications. Remind yourself that all of these customers are joining you for atypical reasons, so make sure that the cadence, frequency, and tone of communications are adjusted appropriately.

Action to take now: 

  • Capture digital contact information to create new customer relationships now, if you don’t already have a plan. (We have access to dozens of platforms that can help and we can make introductions or help you install them.)
  • Tag all the new members, new emails and new app downloads now with a discrete audience type. These “COVID” relationships were formed in an entirely different context.
  • Migrate new customer data into your rewards and CRM platforms.
  • Connect disconnected systems. APIs and microservices can help make actionable data useful to disconnected systems (T3 has pre-built a number of these services that connect the top rewards and CRM platforms).
  • Ensure new customers are onboarded with automated welcome journeys. If you already have these, look at the cadence, frequency and content to make sure it’s relevant in a post-COVID world.

2. Identify customer groups likely to leave

Depending on your industry, some customers are standing by you; others are prevented from using your services (and are likely to return); still, others may be migrating to other brands because of convenience, circumstance, or because a competitor has provided services that have become critical during this time. 

The customer segment that has switched brands is one to identify first. Their behavior or loyalty shifts may become permanent as they see new value in a brand’s products or services like curbside or delivery. Those competitive brands will be working as hard to retain new customers as you are to win them back.  

Action to take now: 

  • Assess your brand and industry and identify why customers have found alternatives. If business is up, think about whether your competitors are up. If it’s down, think about whether all your competitors are down and seek shining lights in unlikely places. A local cheese shop in Austin experienced a record sales day by pairing contactless delivery and virtual cheese tasting via video conference. 
  • Develop profiles and cues for segments likely to shift away as business returns. For example, if you’re tracking days between purchases across heavy, medium and light customer segments, you may discover a post-COVID cue that can indicate when things may be beginning to turn up, and for which customer segments. This indication can help you tune both your mass and targeted messaging.
  • For loyalty customers, evaluate point balances and expiration dates. Modify or build transition incentives to ease them back to your brand. All major travel programs, and many others, are relaxing point expiration, status qualification, and other T&Cs to accommodate the pause in economic activity. There are several articles summarizing these changes; here’s one of my favorites from Forbes.
  • Prompt members to use their currency in ways that drive incremental profits. Adding ways to redeem for lower-cost add-ons can be the driver for incremental visits. It’s always a good strategy, but especially now.
  • Create and deploy welcome-back (not win-back) campaigns in advance and deploy them as markets start coming back online. Plan globally, deploy locally.

3. Thank and welcome back your loyal fans.

When I’ve spoken with clients and our teams these past weeks, I’ve heard a sense of loss for brands they miss. They talk about wanting to go back to Saturday mornings with their kids at one of Austin’s breakfast taco joints. Fans of our client Auntie Anne’s tweet their cravings. “What I wouldn’t do right now for a mall pretzel. I’m looking at you @AuntieAnnes.”

As much as you miss your customers, many are missing you. Yet some have found alternatives who have saved the day and created new preferences.

We’re working with our clients now on planning for the reunion—with emphasis on getting the timing, frequency, and sentiment right. Just as consumers became overwhelmed by the barrage of “In these times” and “Letter from our CEO” emails as the crisis started, we expect an avalanche of “We’re OPEN” messages as things recover. Make sure your voice and brand stand out for the right reasons.

Business will not just turn back on. Consumers will be on high alert with six in 10 concerned about lifting stay-at-home orders too quickly. Recovery in some industries may lag for months. While the imperative to drive immediate revenue will be there, be proactive in planning and sensitive in transitioning back.

Action to take now: 

  • Evaluate your current segments. Make sure they are still valid and don’t require adjustment. Think about your very best customers, how you identify them and how you’re monitoring their behavior.
  • Identify customers whose basket size or frequency has grown during the crisis and use insights about that behavior to create programs to sustain that new level of loyalty.
  • Identify once-loyal customers who seem to have lapsed and double down on bringing them back to your brand.
  • Check your churn propensity models and other predictive analytics driving automated marketing that may have been thrown off course by the crisis. They may need to be turned off or re-cast.
  • Establish cross-channel campaigns to ease people back to your products and services as customers and your company come back online in each market.
  • Listen to your mom. Words like “Thank you”, “Please” and “You’re welcome” are indeed magic.

Modern Loyalty is a set of experiences and not just a points program or a platform. The best programs are personalized and agile. They establish intimacy with customers through a fair exchange of data and value. That intimacy creates relevance that comes together when your messages, cadence and frequency work in unison, and form the heart of a relationship.  

Above all, never forget that you are supporting people and relationships with them. The COVID-19 crisis has seen the best brands use listening, creativity, and in-the-moment decision-making to weather the first phases of the crisis. As people, businesses and the economy transition back, the standard loyalty playbook is absolutely the wrong thing to use right now. Instead, be proactive, be agile and be human. I’ve found the theory of the hammer and the dance informative. We need to be thinking about what the dance looks like for our relationships with our best customers. 

We’re helping clients return to normal the right way, every day. Let me know if we can help

About the Author

Sean Eidson leads the Loyalty Practice at Material. He just finished a gig at SMU’s Cox School of Business where he was a Director at the Brierley Institute for Customer Engagement. He has developed Loyalty and Customer Engagement strategies for AT&T, Bridgestone, Synchrony Financial, Hertz and dozens of other brands.

Profile Photo of Sean Eidson