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Ask an Iterator: Zack Gholikely on Connecting With Customers

The global coronavirus pandemic has significantly changed the way the retail industry solves complex business and communication problems, with an increasing dependence on digital technology.

But while the pandemic has certainly accelerated the need to put the “e” before commerce, it isn’t a new development. In fact, brick-and-mortar retailers have been fighting a fierce battle against e-commerce behemoths (cough cough, Amazon) for years.

And although many brands have become accustomed to digital acceleration, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re adequately prepared for it. And that’s what we’re here to discuss—how to connect with customers, even with limited budget and resources.

In the first installment of our newest series, “Ask an Iterator,” we’re asking Zack Gholikely, our Head of Agency Partnerships, how companies big and small can stay competitive in the chaos.

Ask an Iterator: Zack Gholikely

Zack Gholikely headshot

Why are you the right person to talk about connecting with customers?

I entered the marketing technology space in 2012 during the “big data revolution.” At that time, media and martech were full of reports and projections on how big data was going to transform, business, government, marketing, and the economy. It was exciting, but it was generating heavy economic uncertainty.

Of course, 2012 was nowhere close to the chaos of 2020 (pandemic, social unrest, elections). But it was the onset of big data, and the development of economy-undermining predictive models. It was a digital transformation married to economic and political uncertainty, reminiscent of what is happening today.

Today, COVID-19 is expediting the proliferation of the technology landscape. More customers and businesses are online and digitally-enabled now than ever before. It’s 2012 times 100. And it’s gotten me thinking creatively about how companies can connect with customers, starting with embracing the digital landscape.

How should businesses connect with customers, without a high initial investment of time and money?

I would say start with a mindset shift and focus on establishing trust and following your businesses’ heart. It’s what we tell our small and medium-sized business (SMB) customers to start with. And SMBs need to play a different game than larger brands who can, in a pinch, fall back on scale and delivery speed.

Put simply, brands that are behind the curve in the digital transformation journey should lean on their winning traits as they reimagine their business and marketing model. For many, this is establishing trust, developing connections, and diversifying their customer experience.

Of course, building trust is not a one-and-done or simple task. But that doesn’t mean it’s expensive. There are economical ways of doing it. Small things—like collecting reviews, sending out surveys, website management, and message customization—are all things you should be doing right now to build trust with customers.

You need to show your customer that you are taking their feedback and acting upon it. And you need to be personalizing their experience. A modern technology stack can help make this trust-building exercise relatively easy and inexpensive.

Can you give us an example?

Take email, as an example. It’s a tried-and-true mechanism for messaging if you know how to wield it (and, again it’s inexpensive). I’d recommend you focus on capturing customer data through kinetic email design.

With a kinetic email design, you remove the chicken and egg scenario of the customer interaction. By that I mean, we need more data on our customers to get them back to the site and to personalize their messaging, but how can we collect this data? What do we do?

The kinetic design in an email allows you to essentially put a website inside of your user’s inbox. You will be able to get a ton of data back without getting them to come to your site. And, because a kinetic email looks incredible, they will probably come back to your site anyway!

Google Pixel Buds Email

Google delivers a kinetic “Pixel Buds” email that really wows: The product image changes colors per your selection, and the “Add to Cart” button reveals a working quantity selection that calculates your total cost in real time. Source: Really Good Emails

Once you have optimized the email channel and collected subscriber data, you can identify what your customers value.  This will inform your digital transformation, e-commerce site design, and cross-channel strategy.

What should SMBs focus on?

For SMBs, it’s important to recognize an implicit strength—the “small” part of SMB: Locality. It’s where customers will shop this season.

Given a choice between a local store and a major chain, consumers know what they are going to experience at each location: At a chain, they will have the convenience of knowing they will find their product at an affordable cost, but what is lacking in these big-box engagements is personality.

And it’s that personal connection, where memory is attributed to a brand, that relates to today’s consumer! Leverage your locality to connect with customers.

What about mid-market to enterprise brands? What can they do to connect with customers?

If you are an enterprise brand, and you haven’t started the process of digital transformation, do that right now. Get out of your vendor-locked cloud contracts and start to get some best-in-class solutions. It’s quick and painless with the right team and product helping you make the transition.

Like I said before, you might have the scale and delivery speed on lock from a logistical perspective. But unless you have a modern tech stack, the most sophisticated brand strategies—to personalize and connect with customers—can not be achieved. 

Take, for instance, digital communication. Every customer expects real-time communication throughout their entire journey with a brand. Delivering instant communication is a prerequisite to connecting with customers. But legacy marketing automation provides simply can’t deliver on this expectation, due to FTP and building segments through SQL. And without the ability to reach customers in real-time, meaningful connections will not be made.

Brands of any size, but especially mid-market and enterprise brands, can’t forget that humans with real feelings and emotions are on the receiving end of every marketing message. That is especially relevant and important now when consumer confidence (and holiday spirits) are low.

Sometimes you need to ask how the customer is doing and provide emotional support or an opportunity for a friendship. The brands that don’t strive for sale will be the ones that succeed. Big or small.

Connecting with customers: A sweet surprise from Zoe's Kitchen

A sweet surprise for customers is a great way to show your appreciation. BRB while we sign up for their loyalty program. Source: Really Good Emails

What is your advice for all companies, regardless of size, to connect with customers?

There are no generic formulas or “best practices” I can share. Each brand has a unique digital journey. In fact, I am of the firm belief that following an overriding “best practice” will just turn you into your competitor. Which you NEVER want.

My lasting advice is to stay true to your brand’s voice and your brand’s heart. We will never go back to a world where your company’s values don’t matter. Your company’s value is worth more than your product. Don’t dilute it, and make your business’s soul a part of your e-commerce marketing strategy.

So what next?

No matter the size of your business, or where you are on your digital journey, you can connect with customers—quickly and without a high initial investment, if you know what you need. It may be helpful to level-set how mature your marketing is currently before you make a plan.

We know that this world is scary right now, but we want your brand to not only survive—but thrive. And connecting with customers where they are, with exactly what they want to see, is the way to do it.

Of course, mindset is everything. As you take the next step in your personalization and e-commerce enablement journey, repeat the following affirmations:

I am doing fantastic work.

I will not stray too far from who I am, or my mission. Staying true to my mission is my value proposition. Consistency will be my legacy.

First-party and zero-party data are king; build connections by establishing trust.

I will prioritize my customers by listening to them and acting on what I hear.

Connecting With Customers: Just Be Human

Humanity. We’re really big on this concept at Iterable. We’re in the people business, and our mission is to connect people with products that bring them joy. Which is why we’re bringing our people (who also bring us a ton of joy!) straight to you in our “Ask an Iterator” series.

If you have a question you’d like our Iterators to answer, DM Iterable on Twitter. You may find yourself in our next feature! To stay up-to-date on new “Ask an Iterator” posts, sign up for our biweekly blog newsletter.

And if your brand is on the path to getting your martech in order, we can help. We will work with your team to recapture relevance and personalize your marketing—the right and responsible way. Reach out today to learn more.

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