Launching a loyalty program is hard. Launching a program when all of your competitors already have one is harder.

Loyalty is a well-established marketing discipline that has saturated almost every consumer sector. In fact, brands that do not offer a program often stand out more than those that do. The benefits of a program are obvious: Increasing brand affinity, driving incrementality, and collecting one-to-one transactional data all allow marketers to be smarter, less reactive, and more efficient.

But with programs becoming so ubiquitous, no brand wants its program to exist as just one of many in the “sea of sameness” that so often defines programs in a single vertical. And this challenge can be compounded when a brand is last to market within in its category.

Launching a program from scratch in a crowded market is a unique and exciting challenge. And it presents tremendous opportunity for the brands who are willing to be inventive and diligent in their approach to entering the fray.

These six key takeaways can help brands that are new to the loyalty party launch highly successful programs:

1. Study your competition deeply and learn from their successes and mistakes.

It’s important to take a good look at the programs your competitors have in market. For any program design effort, you should try to understand the mechanics, structure, and promotions that make up the programs with which you will compete.

Of course, taken together, these elements of your competitions’ programs represent the features that drive success in the market. These are important to know. But when you are late to the game, you also have the unique advantage of studying what went wrong for these brands. Dig deeply into the history of how their programs evolved and any changes they made, whether in structure or communications, and you will get a sense of potential pitfalls to avoid.

2. Make a splash with your design and your launch.

As a newcomer to the loyalty scene in your space, the design of your program is going to have to offer features and benefits that help it stand out from the pack. This is a given if you are going to maximize the reacquisition of your lost (but formerly best) customers.

Focus on grabbing attention away from the competition with bold promotions and rich initial offers. Create a splash early, but be cautious about dropping off right after launch. Try to sustain the energy of the launch for a lengthy period, and then ease into your regular program structure and offer cadence.

3. Ensure the essence of your brand is not forgotten.

Far too often, brands launch programs that offer great benefits, points, prizes, and utility to the consumer but that stray from the heart of the brand’s promise or purpose. These programs deliver a measure of success, but they don’t capitalize on the goodwill and love that customers associate with the brand.

This is an easy pitfall for a brand launching a program in a crowded space. Balance the program’s rewards with design and features centered on the aspects of the brand that customers already love. And it’s important to offer perks, access, and rewards that are deeply tied to the essence of the brand itself, and to the experience a customer has when interacting with that brand.

4. Prior to launch, focus on employee training.

If there is one thing you don’t want to hear a front-line employee say about your program, it’s “check out our new rewards program. It’s like Competitor #1’s program, but …”

As your brand rolls out its new program, it’s critical to focus on how well your employees understand its ins and outs. In addition, it is just as important to ensure your employees are deeply versed in the program’s messaging, promotions, and structure—that they become true ambassadors of your loyalty strategy.

Finally, be sure to inspire your employees with the program. Help them see how the program might make their jobs easier, drive more business, or help them serve their customers better, both of which can lead, for example, to bigger tips or commission. Consider allowing your employees to participate in the program. The program shouldn’t be viewed as just one more thing they have to remember. It should be something they are excited to talk about with customers.

5. Expect your competitors to react (quickly) and be prepared to adjust.

While your competitors may have taken some of your customers when they launched their programs, don’t expect them to readily give up these customers. Be prepared for your competition to adjust their programs or offer healthy promotions to respond to your program launch. In turn, you should also be prepared to adapt.

6. Be patient, and give the program a chance to build critical mass.

Ultimately, a loyalty program is a long-term play that requires organizational commitment. While there will likely be initial successes to celebrate, don’t expect the customers who left when your competition’s program launched to come back right away. It takes time for a loyalty program to build out a strong ROI.

The real benefits of the program will accumulate with time and are highly dependent on marketers’ abilities to leverage the loyalty channel to drive business results. Over time, the deep one-to-one customer understanding developed within the program will allow you to develop and propel the business.

learner persona exercise

Here's what this looks like in practice. For a recent project, our instructional designers developed training to support users in navigating a complex web-based data entry system. First, we collaborated with the project stakeholders to develop learner personas. During a two-day workshop, our stakeholders shared with us that there were four different types of users in their data entry system.

We assigned each stakeholder to one of these types of users and then handed them markers to draw us pictures of their learners on easel pad. As part of these drawings, we asked the group to name the learners and give us a small biographical sketch of them. In fact, we refer to our learners by name—Nancy, Marty, and Susan—to humanize them.

Then, we asked stakeholders to identify how the learners interact with the system. What were the common pain points and challenges? In this case, our stakeholders interact with the learners on a regular basis, so they were able to provide ample insight.

Finally, we conducted interviews with our target learners, which helped us confirm what we heard from the stakeholders. It also helped us build empathy towards those learners—a critical piece of the process. If you can imagine how your learners are spending their time, you are better positioned to develop a learning experience that will resonate with them.

Learning personas should focus on:

  1. Goals and attitudes: What drives or motivates your learners? What is their attitude about learning? About the content you are teaching?
  2. Behaviors: How do your learners currently experience training? What do they like? Or what don’t they like?
  3. Visual and sensory preferences or needs: How should we design the learning so it meets their needs. For example, If we know they have low bandwidth internet connections, then we should make sure that we don’t include too much multimedia that will keep the learners from effectively using our training solution.
  4. Educational level: Do your learners have advanced degrees?

Applying Persona Knowledge to Design

We can bring back learner personas throughout the development process to ensure that we continue to design effective solutions. Throughout the process, we can check in on Nancy and Marty and make sure that the learning solution we design for them will work for them. Are we helping Nancy do her job better? We can ask at every stage of the design process, what would Nancy want? What would be most helpful to Marty at this point?

In addition to building empathy for the learners, developing personas encourages instructional designers to think about what the learners need from a bottom-up approach. We often begin projects with a list of learning objectives that our clients believe that learners need to master. But if we began our projects by asking the learners what they need to know, we could develop training that is focused on meeting the learner’s pain points and challenges.

Our teams design experiences that are driven by the learners’ needs, and incorporating persona development into our projects helps us to do just that. We can’t ignore our learners; ultimately, they are our clients’ customers and, as a result, our customers. 

Have you used similar methods to develop training programs? Tell us more about your experiences on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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