November 16

My CRM beliefs – Lessons from a long(ish) career

I remember realising CRM was going to be my career when I was on the marketing grad scheme at Vodafone in 1999. Vodafone was then part of the Air Miles programme and was deciding whether it should remain so.

That meant testing and lots of it. We were assessing the price elasticity of miles — essentially how generous did we need to be in giving away miles to get the behaviour we wanted to see?

I loved the black and white of it. The ability to get statistically valid results telling us if what we had done worked. Brand Marketing seemed too ethereal by comparison. Though to be fair this was before Byron Sharp, Binet and Field, and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute had proven empirically the long-term benefit of brand-building on profits.

So after the grad scheme, I went into CRM and over the length of my career I have failed, succeeded, and stuff in between. But through it all, there are things that have stayed constant. Things that have remained as true on day one as they are now. I thought I would share them and see if others would find them useful.

Measure what counts

CRM has numbers and stats coming out of every orifice but, in reality, answering these questions is the only thing that matters:

  • Have more people done the thing we wanted them to than if we hadn’t run the campaign?
  • If they did, and we wanted to make money with the campaign, did we get a positive ROI?

That’s it. Determine your response. Set up a control group. Run the campaign. See if it made a statistically significant difference. Run it again to see if you can replicate results.

Open rates, click-through rates, unsubscribes, and delivery rates are what everyone talks about because they’re easy to get. They’re useful diagnostic tools to help explain your response rate performance but they don’t define whether a campaign was successful.

Unless your definition of a response was to get someone to click through to some content. Obviously.

I would also urge you to benchmark your campaigns against your own past performance and external benchmarks — it’ll give you a feeling of progress and something outside your immediate bubble to shoot for. From an email and push perspective, I recommend this as a benchmark report:

Never assume new is better

In marketing, we often come up with something we think is improved from what we had previously. We follow what we believe is best practice and create a “better” piece of creative or make “better” media choices.

But the truth is — we don’t know they’re better. We hope they are, especially given how much we have sunk into building them. However, the only way to be sure is to test against what we currently do.

So please do the tests and be prepared to reverse course. That last bit — admitting all that work was for nought — is the hardest bit. That’s because of the Sunk Cost fallacy which Daniel Kahneman describes in his book ‘Thinking, fast and slow’:

“All too often a company afflicted by sunk costs drives into the blizzard, throwing good money after bad rather than accepting the humiliation of closing the account of a costly failure. In this situation the choice is between a sure loss and an unfavourable gamble, which is often unwisely preferred.”

Never be afraid to cut your losses and stick with what you had if the new version isn’t better. It’s not a disaster. You just learned what doesn’t work and can try something else.

Test within a framework.

We all know testing is crucial but it can be overwhelming — where do you start? There are so many things that could be tested. For that reason, people usually end up doing easy stuff like subject line testing. That’s worthwhile but there are things to be tested that could have a bigger effect.

I like to go back to my Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) training. They broke down what could be tested into several categories which are ordered by the potential size of their impact on response rates:

  1. Target Audience — Who are you talking to and are they right for what we are trying to achieve?
  2. Offer — Should we have one? If so what is the offer type and offer magnitude?
  3. Medium — Are we using email, DM, push, SMS? A combination?
  4. Creative — A huge area covering copy, imagery, tone, colours, etc, etc
  5. Response Mechanism — Am I asking people to call, click, or go to a store?
  6. Timing — When should I send? Does it matter?

It’s a solid structure to use to build up your Playbook of what works for you which I wrote about in more detail here.

Think about the journey

Never think about just one contact point. Think about the customer comms journey. A good start is to ask yourself three questions for each piece of communication:

  1. What do you want someone to do?
  2. Why would they bother?
  3. What if they don’t do what you wanted?

Be Transparent

One of the things missing from a lot of creative is an explanation to the recipient as to why they are getting it. Even if the customer doesn’t want what you’re offering at that time, they should completely understand why they got it and why you think it’s relevant to them.

Imagine if you had to explain to a customer or prospect in person why you thought this communication was relevant before sending it. If you can’t give a good reason you really need to think about whether you are being targeted and relevant enough.

Just make sure you don’t come across as creepy. If you’re a bank, telling someone you’ve been analysing their credit card records and have figured out they’d benefit from a specific offer is clearly overstepping the mark.

Use Behavioural Science to get a response

CRM can sometimes become a little abstract and numerical. You tend to forget there are people at the other end of the communication as you focus on cell sizes or propensity scores. People who, let's not forget, you want to do something.

One of my biggest learning periods was as at DDB Sydney working with Brand Planners. They talked constantly about human truths and behaviour. About understanding what the customer was thinking to truly get to the bottom of a brief and ensure the best creative outcome they could.

I took that on board but I needed some science behind it to make it ‘valid’ in my brain. Why do people think the way they do? So I invested in reading up on psychology and behavioural economics. I’ve since tried to use some of those principles in driving responses to some success. As a start, check out anything by Richard Thaler or Daniel Kahneman — it will expand your horizons.

Make it simple for the customer, not you

In my experience to get to as close to a one to one communication as possible can be very complex. At GAME I asked my team to pull together an email showing the games that the customer had bought in the last 6 months and what they were now worth as a trade-in against a new game.

It was bloody hard work and I’m still not sure the CRM team has forgiven me. But it was a successful campaign because we were relevant, transparent and simple from a customer perspective. Don’t simplify for your own ease of delivery if in doing so you lose too much relevancy and individualism in the end product.

Get trained

There seems to be a fashion these days that says marketing qualifications aren’t useful. Look at Gary Vaynerchuk for example. Apparently the marketing world is moving too fast — how can professional training hope to keep up and stay relevant?

I disagree in general but very much so in terms of CRM. A good CRM practitioner is able to understand their discipline from a statistical, psychological and technological standpoint. If you are missing one of those things then you are not as good as you could be and training can help round out your skills.

I am a big fan of the Institute of Direct Marketing in the UK. I’d highly recommend identifying your weak spots and seeing what they have to offer to rectify them.

Keep everything

When you move roles, for the love of God make sure you keep copies of the work you have done. I cannot count the times that I have used or adapted something from a previous role in a newer one. It can save you huge amounts of time not having to recreate everything all over again.


I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now and I am grateful for the training, mentors, and experiences I have had. CRM is a huge part of the marketing mix and when done right, within the context of a strong marketing strategy, it can generate huge amounts of value. In addition, a lot of what you learn is transferable. A lot of the same principles apply in paid social, Programmatic display and more.

If you’re a CRM practitioner I hope this was useful. If not, I hope you weren’t bored and at least nodded your head occasionally. If you have different views I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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