The Lost Art of Experience Marketing—How can financial services firms apply it?

by IdeaTransfer on May 15, 2012

Buying your product should be an experience, not an event—that’s the revelation marketing gurus have been pumping lately.  Buying decisions are right-brain driven, and smart online marketers load your screen with sensory and emotional impressions that help you make them.  That’s Experience Marketing—an old American art form that needed to be rediscovered and updated.

You remember, or you’ve heard about, Levittown built just after WWII?  The Levitts were early masters at creating a great buying experience.  They had an intentionally commoditized product—standardized housing that could be priced lower than renting.  But they didn’t rely on pricing and also focused attention on what owners could do with the houses—decorating contests, remodeling training, community building.  The Great Depression and the war put the American Dream on hold for 15 years until the Levitts redefined it as their suburban homeowner experience.

Brownie Wise may be less known today, but she created what may be the predecessor of social network marketing.  Her party-plan sales system proved to be the ideal decision experience for plastic kitchen containers—repeatedly overloading the production capacity of the Tupperware company with orders.  As a side benefit she transformed conventional home life of women in the 50s by recruiting thousands of buyers into her system where they achieved independent financial success.

How do these experience marketing lessons apply to financial services?  Intangible products like life insurance and planning services for wealth management, business continuity, and multigenerational legacies for high net worth clients—not much sensory opportunity here.  Words on a page.  Numbers on spreadsheets.  Complex graphs.  Value deferred to the future or even past the buyer’s death.  But lots of emotion to work with—if financial service regulators didn’t want to exclude all right-brain function from the buying process.

What we do have to work with are the current thought patterns of affluent Americans after four years of crisis, recession, and uncertainty.  Here are some observations that could lead to experience marketing applications.

Everyone understands financial cycles go around and come around—yet the common feeling is that affluent Americans are steadily losing ground.  Baby Boomers sense a loss of their personal control that they valued so highly, and they are distressed by the idea their children and grandchildren will pay the price.  GenXers are more suspicious than ever of societal institutions and values–they want only self-reliance.  Millennials complain they were lied to, having signed on the success track, filled up our colleges, borrowed huge sums, and are now graduating into 50% unemployment.  Each generation yearns to experience real confidence.

The pursuit of a affluent lifestyles naturally took a beating during recession.  Everybody knows of somebody who had a precipitous fall, and nobody escaped the anxiety.  Today, most affluent Americans would be happy to simply experience financial security and family harmony.

No matter what the income level, there is no guarantee against outliving assets.  Longevity gains have changed the economics and the experience of retirement and added fuel to the fear.  A retirement of postponed pleasures has given way to minimizing retirement compromises.

Business owners who thought they would grab the brass ring by selling their businesses have become wary about letting go of such a good thing.  Family succession to preserve business assets over generations has more attraction now–if it brings the experience of family solidarity.

Comprehensive planning used to seem daunting and painful to busy clients.  Now, the quest to eliminate every vulnerability makes planning processes tolerable—no pain no gain.  That’s an opening to turn the process into a more-gain-less-pain experience.

And all these thought patterns lead to the biggest right-brain question in financial services.  How can clients put trust in their advisors? Expertise used to be powerful, but we proved it isn’t foolproof.  Creativity has a negative connotation now, although creative ways to repair past mistakes and restore security might strike chords.  Listening skill and empathy don’t go as far as they used to toward earning trust.  How can advisors create the trust experience?

Here is the right time to turn over the down card.   You can improve the financial services planning and buying experience in many ways, but one solution beats the others because it positively impacts all the experience challenges just discussed.  What is it?  The amount and quality of your firm’s communication to your clients, your prospects, and their advisors.

Here are four strategic communication recommendations that will build trust, spread confidence, generate security, and all the rest using experience marketing.

Start sharing stories—experience marketing “by proxy”.

Stories bind people together, and the impact of someone else’s experience is  often more powerful than one’s own experience.  You have dozens if not hundreds of stories in your client files that would inspire and motivate—if you shared them.  Instead, you send newsletters analyzing planning strategies—left-brain, abstract, complicated, boring.

Start a wave mail campaign that shares a success story every other month.  Not case studiesnobody identifies with being a case.  Think through how you made a client happy, how you turned an obstacle into an opportunity, how you brought order to confusion.  Record your telling of the story and have it transcribed—that way is reads like storytelling not an essay.  Eliminate all the technical descriptions and jargon.  Focus instead on the client’s thoughts, doubts, and realizations as the story unfolds–the experience.  Bring it all down to a lesson learned that relates to a thought pattern listed list above.  This isn’t hard to do—a quick memory jog by looking at the file, a few more minutes to organize your thoughts, recording and editing down to a page or two—a couple of hours work tops.  Call it something like Looking Backward.

Make vision come to life—experience marketing in the form of “common aspirations”. 

Your clients, their advisors, potential clients all have strong opinions about what’s going on in the world today.  Most of us hold these strong opinions back in the business environment because we don’t want to alienate anyone who thinks differently.  Probably wise—but what if you elevate those opinions to the level of vision?  At the highest elevation we all agree that we want to live in a world of prosperity, freedom, equality.  The disagreement only comes when we descend into the best ways to achieve it.

So, unveil your own right-brain thinking.  In the alternate months when you are not sharing success stories, talk about your insights on the role of confidence, the true source of family security and harmony, the challenges and satisfactions you’ve seen in family businesses, the meaning of legacy and heritage to families and communities.  You can support your personal lessons learned, by your observations of other people, by the wisdom of famous thinkers, or by your grandmother’s favorite sayings. You have held on to this vision for years and expressed privately, so it won’t be hard to speak them out once more, record them and polish them a little, and send them out.  You will stimulate your readers to reflect on their experiences and hopes, and you will make a difference in their lives.  Maybe you call it Looking Inward.

Offer a head’s up—experience marketing “in advance”.

One of the casualties of the financial crisis was the comfortable illusion of predictability.  Looking backwards revealed mountain of mistakes, misguided intentions, and missed opportunities we paid no attention to until too late.  Have we gotten any better at seeing the future?  Not likely.  Should we just give up and react what happens?  Not smart.

Predictability was the wrong way to state the goal.  Preparedness trumps predictability.  Preparedness is where advisors can shine.  No fear of being wrong—you can’t be wrong if you deal in what-ifs. So read the pundits, watch the news, listen to commentators, and then think about the impact on your clients of futures they pontificate about.  That’s how you identify the what-if component.  Now think of all the strategies you know to achieve preparedness for those what-ifs.  Keep it simple and informal—a hallway conversation.  In fact, you can make it easy by recording your responses in an interview by one of your colleagues.  Transcribe it, refine it, send it.  Your clients will expect the probabilities and meet the realities with confidence.  Call it Looking Ahead.

Perform small courtesies—experience marketing “through thoughtfulness”.

Given the intangible nature of financial services, any time you actually create client experiences you need to capture them and make them mean something.  Client meetings, advisor meetings, internal meetings about clients, interactions with product and service providers on behalf of clients, client reporting events, client service events, client reviews, and so on—they all have experience marketing value.

This will sound too simple and obvious, but few firms master it.  Just before these experiences occur send short notes describing the goal, explaining the process, and reinforcing the value of the event in the context of planning.  Shortly after these experiences are over send short notes reminding clients what the goal was, describing what was decided, and explaining the next step in the planning process.  Add a few lines for thanks, acknowledgements, good wishes, and common bonds.  For events where clients are not directly involved, describe it so they can experience the event and understand its meaning after the fact.  These communications take minutes—do it a few times and create prototypes that can be customized.  Maybe your client management software has templates.

Two hundred years ago the term manners had a more profound meaning—manners were a seen as character in action.  These small courtesies allow clients to experience your character in the same way.

Claiming these recommendations are easy may not convince you.  If you need any help, feel free to ask.  And even if you don’t care about experience marketing, they work just as well simply as relationship builders.

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