Forget ATL and BTL: Think Customer Engagement Instead

We have all heard marketing communications defined as either ATL (above-the-line) or BTL (below-the-line). But what line are we talking about it? Surprisingly, very few people in marketing or in agencies actually know. The ‘line’ originally referred to where the agencies made their profits when they were working with the old commission system. ATL activities are those for which the agency once received a media commission – typically TV, radio, print, and billboard. BTL was all the stuff they may have had to do but didn’t make a commission on. Some still use this obsolete commission system, but most of them have shifted to fee-based compensation. But the terminology of ATL and BTL lives on – less as a financial indicator, but now somehow morphed into a way of thinking – as an above and below mindset that can damage your attempts to integrate a powerful customer engagement to influence their behavior.

If you are an aspiring agency creative, where would you want to be – above the line working on big-budget television commercials and stunning print ads, or below the line working on packaging, POP posters, and shelf hangers? One creative director of a so-called agency hot shop proudly proclaimed to us that his firm “doesn’t mess around with below the line.” He went on to explain that he’d prefer to let the smaller, less talented agencies pick up those “crumbs.”

Get the right creative people on the bus

Whenever you want to find good advertising people to work on your business, or to hire creative directors for your agency, you should look for people who are motivated to inject creativity into everything they can touch, see, feel, or hear. That is the mindset to look for. This type of person is thrilled to decorate a chair or paint a bus. The canvas doesn’t matter as much as the power of the creative idea itself and its ability to affect what people do – buy your product, for example. These creative people tend to do exceptional work, whether it is on a TV ad or a trade show brochure. They love the creative process for its own sake and they don’t care a lick about being above or below any imaginary line.

Traditional ATL advertising is very cool. It is also a terrific waste of money if you overuse it, or use it inappropriately. Now that we have all of that out of the way, how do you exponentially gear up your marketing communications to deliver superior brand performance – sell more stuff, to more people, for more money, more efficiently? Your marketing communications should focus on customer engagement at every step of their buying process  – from need recognition to post-purchase brand advocacy.

The customer journey

Along this customer journey, you can insert some very important and timely brand communication messages. Knowing how your best customer prospects live their lives gives you a much better capability to communicate your targeted brand message at the right place and at the right time of day and align with where your customer is in their purchase decision process. The only problem is that you haven’t sold anything yet. What you have established, however, is purchase intent and the beginnings of brand preference. Take it one step at a time – you are currently a step ahead of most marketers because you are planting the seeds of purchase intent to soon harvest with actual sales. And, if you take the time to close the loop and the sale with integrated messages inside the selling environment, and then create brand advocacy with current customers you also managed the post-purchase relationship effectively.

For most products, purchase intent is established outside the four walls of the selling environment, while the actual purchase behavior occurs inside the four walls. For Internet businesses, there is still the inside the virtual four walls of your selling environment (within the site) and a banner ad on another site that would be outside the virtual four walls because it would create purchase intent and try to motivate customer engagement on your site. Whether it is a digital or brick-and-mortar business, you should focus your communication objectives on whether you can actually sell something or create purchase intent to set up the moment when you can.

Inside and outside communication tools

Instead of an arbitrary determination of ATL and BTL ‒ which is completely irrelevant to what you want to achieve with your business, start talking about outside-the-four-walls communication tools ‒ and inside-the-four-walls communication tools. Again, the objective of outside-the-four-walls communication is to establish purchase intent. The objective of inside-the-four-walls communications is tougher because you have to do both – continue to drive purchase intent as you close the sale with actual purchase behavior at the moment of truth (when money actually changes hands). It is really pretty simple and straightforward if you think about it. The challenge is not just in recognizing the situations where you should create purchase intent or actually go for the sale, it is also crucial that you integrate both the purchase intent and purchase behavior driving messages for customer engagement.

Effective marketing communications understand the different customer engagement outside and inside the four walls. It leverages the most appropriate communication tools to deliver the right message at the right time, at the right place. It is about moving from interruption-based communication to engagement communications.

The importance of timing

When you were a child, you knew precisely the best time to ask your father or mother for something you wanted. You knew the importance of timing related to your parent’s state of mind by the time you were four years old. Different requests required a different approach, but you knew even back then how important positioning the message coupled with delivery timing was to achieving a successful result. You didn’t interrupt your father the moment you saw him blurt out your request. You picked the right time and place.

If you wanted some money to go to the movies, it wasn’t very helpful for you to interrupt your father in whatever else he was doing and just ask. You could have gone for that magical 3x message frequency by writing the request down on several sheets of paper and posting it wherever he went during the day, but that probably just would have irritated him. Perhaps like what you are doing now with your current media plans (think of the car ad that flashes across the screen when you are reading the headlines on Yahoo!).

Understand your customer

Instead, you learned way back then to pick the right moment based on your father’s mindset, and position your message with the right wording. You were a good marketer probably before you even learned the meaning of the word. What happened? Why don’t you do that with your customers today? You can manage the communications with your father or your spouse and engage them at the best time putting the best ‘spin’ on your request precisely because you know them so well. So the first step toward better brand communications is to know your customer much better in terms of deeper psychographics and lifestyle data. Only through this deeper understanding will you have the capability to engage them rather than merely interrupt.

The right message at the right time and place

Once you have identified your best customer prospects and developed a fuller understanding of who they are, map out how they move about their lives and think about when is the best time to engage them with your brand message. Think in terms of whether they are in an information-gathering mood (e.g. open to good deals on shopping), reflective about their lives or the future (perhaps open to furniture/re-decorating, insurance, etc.) or want to be entertained and inspired (open to a getaway vacation or a new car). Try very hard to blend your interest in opening a dialog with your product category in general and your brand specifically relative to what they are doing at that moment. Worry less about finding them in large numbers, but more about picking the right moment. The reach part is easy. The timing part is tough.

The reason so many marketers are turning to the Internet is that they recognize that the customer is choosing for themselves to go into specific areas to gather information, to be entertained, or to reflect on their lives. It is much easier to get invited in when the target is already exploring and seeking out what you want to talk about.

Inside the selling environment

Close the loop and close the sale. The best return on investment (ROI) in marketing communication will always be on those communication elements closest to the actual sale. It is only logical. The problem is that many marketers look at in-store communication as a completely different communication process. It isn’t. If you intend to get a good ROI from all the marketing money you spent outside the store, you must link it with the brand communication inside the store. Dance with the girl that you came with, as they say in the countryside. Good advice for marketers, too. If you believe that what you are communicating outside the store is effective in creating customer engagement, why wouldn’t you reinforce that success inside the store and make it easier to close the sale?

Your brand architecture is still the strategy driver. The key functional and emotional benefits that drive customer engagement and purchase intent outside the store are the same benefits that will get you the purchase at the moment of truth. Stay the course. The difference with inside-the-four-walls communications is that you can and must hit harder and more to the point. You must close the sale with a decisive call to action – generate trial, repeat sales, or larger transaction size. You decide, but sell something! Do it by utilizing the right communication at the right moment during the buying process inside the selling environment. Pricing is not enough!

Get your packaging right

The packaging is often under-appreciated and misunderstood. It is the decisive point where purchase intent and purchase behavior come together… or not. You win or lose the sale at that moment. Isn’t that where you should be the most effective? Before you spend any money anywhere else, get your packaging right. And the packaging isn’t just a consumer goods game. Isn’t the type of furniture in your showroom or office a form of packaging?

Don’t get lost in contradictory and unrelated features and benefits when you develop your packaging and in-store communication materials. Stay focused on delivering on specific customer needs during the in-store decision process. The advertising agency, Publicis, has done a good job breaking out of the ATL/BTL trap. Its creative teams approach the entire buying process as a complete customer experience – holistic marketing. It thinks about the specific role of in-store communications relative to the customer’s state of mind with clear creative deliverables.

Post-purchase – drive loyalty and customer advocacy

The sale is not the end of the marketing process. It is the beginning of a more committed relationship between you and a new customer. The more you know about this new customer both in terms of what they bought, and also why they bought it, the better for ensuring that relationship is a long and happy one, providing value to both parties. If you don’t know enough about this new customer, it will be very difficult for you to offer them future goods and services that are truly aligned with their needs.

Connect the CRM to the strategy

Most CRM and loyalty programs are run by the IT department because along the way, the colossal challenge of gathering so much purchase data and getting it to everyone in the organization who wants it became the primary focus of management – manage the flow of data rather than manage the customer engagement. But it is like the old saying when you are up to your neck in alligators, it is hard to remember your original intention was to drain the swamp.

Marketing needs to stay very connected to the CRM program and particularly to defining the necessary inputs gathered at the point of purchase, or when the customer fills out the loyalty card. Make sure you get those few and highly relevant questions asked that let you know who the customer is, both in terms of their motivations as a category customer but also insights into how the category fits into their overall life. In fact, the same deeper understanding of how your brand and product category fits into the life of the customer is the critical piece of market knowledge you must-have for customer engagement before, during, and after the purchase. That is what real customer-centric marketing is all about – really knowing your customer and acting on that knowledge.

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