Building brand loyalty in an online world

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In an interconnected world, physical distance has become irrelevant in terms of market reach. If you want to keep or increase your customer base, companies cannot afford to treat their customers as anonymous users behind a screen. The true power lies in building brand loyalty.

“Traditional marketing is not dead," says digital expert and author Clo Willaerts. Traditional forms of media still fulfill a significant function in terms of commerce. But digital marketing can no longer be considered as an afterthought; it should be an integral part of an organization’s marketing strategy, alongside other advertising alternatives. The buying process now, more than before, starts online. Large companies such as Nike have even started adopting an online-first model, supplementing traditional marketing.

The logical shift to a digital-first model
“The shift towards online marketing is a logical one," explains Willaerts. “That's where the consumers can be found. That's where they have been for the past couple of years. Online shopping has become the norm, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only facilitated this movement. Consumers are becoming more accustomed to the convenience of viewing, selecting, and ordering products online which are then delivered to their doorstep.”

“Furthermore, e-commerce offers manufacturers and sellers unbridled possibilities, with a potential reach that exceeds traditional sales channels by a long stretch," explains Willaerts.

Social media have certainly had an amplifying effect in this evolution, especially in customer engagement and brand loyalty. Customers now have a worldwide and round-the-clock platform to browse, shop, and share information about products or brands.

“Customer reviews can make or break your business. When they are enthusiastic, they’re likely to praise your brand, which can generate new sales opportunities. However, it’s the negative feedback that can impact your brand even more than the positive.” Willaerts continues saying consumers are not stupid. If they encounter a bad experience with a certain product or brand, they will warn each other. In a digitally connected world, this reach can extend pretty far.

Companies should try to prevent this negative perception, which can deter potential customers and be detrimental to business opportunities. If a large group of consumers speaks negatively about your brand, you may never be able to restore your reputation.

“Nowadays journalists scavenge social media channels like Twitter in their quest for breaking news and hot topics. A brand scandal might well be picked up by more media, exacerbating the effect. In turn, resulting in a potential communication crisis for the brand in question.”

Brand loyalty is essential for European brands competing with other regions
In a world with options-overload, brand loyalty is more important than ever. Given the worldwide scope of the internet, consumers can order products from anywhere in Europe and beyond, making it difficult for European companies to compete with the intense competition from low-wage countries in the Far East. Hence the importance of building a loyal following which you can encourage to return for repeat orders and promote your brand to their network.

“Chinese suppliers can deliver more stock at lower prices," says Willaerts. This allows the customers to shop further from home: opening the(ir) doors to cheap products produced en masse in factories on the other side of the world. “The competition is extreme for goods such as apparel and (kitchen) appliances.”

When thinking about increasing your brand loyalty, it is worth bearing in mind that your customers are actual people rather than anonymous figures behind a screen.

GDPR has changed online marketing for the better
The European online marketing scene was transformed radically on May 25, 2018, when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force. This infamous act stipulates a set of standards designed to strengthen the control individuals have over their data. With these rules, brands are restricted in collecting and storing sensitive individual information. Breaches and violations against this act can lead to hefty fines.

Even if not compulsory, many US-based companies have voluntarily committed to protecting the data of their audience instead of this European regulation. Given their access to information and worldwide reach, they decided to adopt stricter policies, especially after some significant cases of misconduct came to light – remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook user data was shared without their consent with the British consulting firm. In this case, the data was predominantly used for political advertising, but this information can also easily be misused for marketing purposes. This example certainly tightened the noose around large-scale corporations and encouraged them to take pre-emptive actions to avoid similar infringements.

The GDPR also prevents netizens from being subscribed to newsletters without their prior consent. “This form of mass communication had become one of the preferred advertising approaches. Not surprisingly so, spamming people via eDM is a very cost-efficient option. With one simple newsletter, you can reach a disproportionate database of potential customers. Even if only one percent of the recipients make a purchase, you will have made sales with minimal investments”, says Willaerts. Regretfully many brands had become very sloppy with customer info. So, the GDPR directives were a welcome piece of legislation to keep companies in line and hold them accountable for protecting people's precious data.

The new trend is authenticity
Given the massive potential reach and international customer base, it's even more important than before for companies to tailor their campaigns to a diverse client base. There is no such thing as uniformity. There are many cultural differences online. If you wish to appeal to a broad audience, you'll do wise to consider these sensitivities. The definition of beauty, for example, differs from one culture to another. Behind the screens, real people are leading real lives. And that's what they want to identify with. The era of the skinny, white, big-breasted woman in advertising is over. What was deemed beautiful in the twentieth century is now perceived as fake. Netizens want to see real people and feel represented. Authentic advertising, with real people, helps to bridge the gap between advertising and reality. Companies that use different people from various ethnic origins and body types tend to be more authentic and credible. This approach may consequently give them an advantage in terms of followers or fans and potential customers.

However, Willaerts continues, “some brands deliberately launch shocking campaigns to generate media traction. After all, the attempt to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable can generate free publicity and potentially allow them to grab a larger slice of the ‘consumer attention cake’. Some companies, like Benetton, have become good at launching provocative movements that simultaneously have positive societal outcomes.”

Brand loyalty isn't just crucial in terms of advertising. It is also the most viable way to perpetuate revenue streams. “More than anything, it's important to keep your customers happy and loyal," says Willaerts. Both in terms of word-of-mouth communication and for reorders and upselling opportunities. When you go the extra mile, you will see the extra dollars (or euros). And after all, it's money that talks…

User generated content allows you to share a credible and sincere message
And in this interconnected world, word-of-mouth can be the most powerful mode of advertising. Consumers believe reviews more than polished commercials. Testimonials of people who are enthusiastic about your brand are worth fortunes. Willaerts says the optimal mix combines user generated content (UGC) and high production value content. That's why images and videos uploaded by real customers on a visual marketing platform are so powerful. This mix allows you to convey a credible and sincere message that people will believe. It also shows you offer quality products that are worth investing in. It demonstrates that you walk your talk and that customers are willing to vouch for it.

“Whatever the method, authenticity remains key. And that's why social proof is so important. It is reflected in likes, shares, subscriptions, followers. Working with influencers who believe in your brand can also pay off, especially when leveraging shoppable Instagram solutions,” says Willaerts.

Willaerts thought influencer marketing would have been dead by now, yet it’s very much alive. “It had all the signs of being a hype. Influencers have a trusted relationship with their followers and become quite skilled at producing content with a high production value. But authenticity is something that has to stem from within, you cannot fake it. It is not some kind of magic potion; you’ll have to earn it”, Willaerts concludes.

A personalized, authentic approach pays off
Online advertising also offers many opportunities because it allows brands to create targeted campaigns and spend their budgets on the desired target audience.

Even if the online world is considered anonymous, we see that getting to know your audience and connecting with them on a human level works best. It might be more time-consuming, but this personalized approach pays off both in terms of marketing and sales.

Interested in learning more about user generated content marketing? 
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More information
Cecilia Rehn, Digital Marketing Manager