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How to use emotional data to build customer loyalty

In the 1990s, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a breakthrough discovery: people make decisions based primarily on emotional influences, as opposed to rational factors. He analyzed patients with lesions impairing the emotional part of their brain and found that they all had something else in common—they were unable to make decisions, even though their ability to reason was otherwise unaffected.

In a world of information overload, your customers are faced with an endless number of decisions every day. Choosing whether to remain loyal to your brand is one of those choices, which means understanding consumers’ emotions and knowing how to respond to them is integral to building brand loyalty. A recent study by Deloitte that analyzed data from 800 consumer surveys, a panel of 112 participants, and 91 million social posts found that when brands use emotional data in smart ways, they can increase customer lifetime value and even create brand advocates.

Here are five ways your brand can leverage emotional data to build loyal customers.

1. Think outside the box of discount marketing

Rational factors, such as price, promotions, and reward programs, are primarily responsible for what gets customers in the door, according to Deloitte’s research. But rational influences often fall flat when it comes to keeping customers around. Emotional factors, including trust, honesty, and belonging, are predominantly what make customers come back repeatedly.

A recent study by Deloitte that analyzed data from 800 consumer surveys, a panel of 112 participants, and 91 million social posts found that when brands use emotional data in smart ways, they can increase customer lifetime value and even create brand advocates.

Deloitte discovered that 60 percent of brand-loyal consumers describe their favorite brands with the same emotional language they use to describe personal relationships—words such as “love,” “happy,” and “adore”—and 44 percent recommend brands based on emotional criteria, even over a company’s values or corporate responsibility principles.

When deciding when to use emotional versus rational data, companies need to consider where groups of people are in terms of the customer journey. For your next marketing campaign, an email that offers discounts may resonate with people who have never tried your product or service before, but it may not work so well for current or past customers. When companies appeal only to customers’ rational side and feed them with constant promotions, it can feel like spam. Brands need to think beyond discount marketing when it comes to what really retains customers.

[Read also: Don't ignore customer data; use it to create a better experience]

2. Go beyond customer experience and tap into human experience

Building emotional connections with customers means taking customer experience a step further and diving into human experience. Trust is the key to opening the human experience door. Similarly to personal relationships, consumers report that trust is the biggest emotional factor (83 percent) in their relationship with brands, next to integrity (79 percent) and honesty (77 percent), according to Deloitte.

One brand that focuses on creating trustworthy, emotional relationships with its customers is Raised Real, a direct-to-consumer baby-and-toddler food company that has delivered more than 500,000 plant-based meals since its national launch in 2018. One of the ways the brand connects with customers on a human level is through its Real Hotline, an SMS customer service that allows customers to text a real person to ask questions about the product, mealtime, or parenting in general.

“From the very beginning, we knew that this had to be a great product for both the kid and Mom and Dad,” said Raised Real CEO and Cofounder Santiago Merea. “A big part of that was the emotional component. Being a new parent is an emotional period, and you have to trust us to take care of your child. The hotline was something the company was built on because we aren’t just feeding the kid; we’re also feeding the parent with that kind of trust and emotional support.”

Building emotional connections with customers means taking customer experience a step further and diving into human experience.

Integrating human experience into your customer experience often requires adopting new technologies and processes. Raised Real is one of only a handful of companies that allow customers to text them, positioning the brand right next to its customers’ friends and family—in the digital landscape, at least. “Our customers share their stories of their kids’ first bites with us. That conversation is private between the brand and you as a parent, in contrast to other customer engagement channels like social media,” explained Merea.

[Read also: The relationship between customer loyalty and expectation]

3. Keep context in mind

Customer data must be used at the right times and in the right ways to successfully build loyalty. One way companies create consistent, contextually appropriate opportunities for applying data is by personalizing the customer experience. Those companies must be smart with how they do so and prioritize the customer over business processes, however. “A lot of times customization is overdone, and brands think of it in a selfish way to improve the product, rather than the customer journey,” said Merea. “Customization makes a lot of sense when it helps you make a decision as a user. That way it’s not just a win for the brand but also a win for the customers, because it focuses on what’s important to them.”

To make onboarding less cumbersome for customers, Raised Real created a quiz that pulls data about their child’s age and preferences to recommend the best meal plan. The brand also uses data from the quiz in its marketing automation efforts to ensure the company consistently sends customers resourceful and personalized content at the right time. For instance, if a customer’s child is graduating from the puree stage, the family might receive helpful information on starting finger foods, or if a baby still is feeding on breast milk or formula, Raised Real won’t send up-sell emails until the family is ready to take the next step on the food ladder. In other words, careful segmentation is the secret sauce to getting context right.

4. Build an emotionally intelligent ecosystem

Building contextually appropriate emotional relationships with customers requires an emotionally intelligent ecosystem that eliminates silos and brings together data from across customer touchpoints. Most customers don’t object to companies using data that they knowingly provide, as long as the brand uses it in a respectful and an empathetic way. 75 percent of customers actually want brands to know their purchase history, 57 percent want brands to be aware of their customer service history, and almost 50 percent love it when a brand references their last interaction, according to Deloitte.

But for companies to be able to use data in ways that benefit the customer, they need technology that can keep up. “We have a lot of data, and all of this data goes into our customer experience platform as we talk to parents, so we know their background,” said Merea. “This creates a much more personal experience.” It’s one thing to have the tools to collect a wide range of data, but data loses its value when brands aren’t technically equipped to call upon it when needed.

For companies to be able to use data in ways that benefit the customer, they need technology that can keep up.

5. Respond to customers empathetically, and use their feedback to get better

In any relationship, emotional connections can fall apart, especially when someone loses trust. When this happens between a customer and a brand, such as when an order is delivered to the wrong address or a promised promotional code isn’t honored, the customer will begin to think rationally, according to Deloitte’s research. However, if brands treat customer relationships like real, two-way human relationships and respond empathetically and honestly, their customers’ emotional side will kick back in. Deloitte also discovered that 77 percent of customers will forgive a brand and remain loyal if they feel that their concern was handled with respect and their feedback acknowledged.

[Read also: The Empathy Economy: Care, so your customers will too]

Surveys are one method for continuously collecting feedback and measuring satisfaction so a company can troubleshoot early on, before trust is broken. But to truly improve retention numbers, brands must go beyond analyzing Net Promoter Scores and turn data into action. Almost 70 percent of customers want companies to use their feedback when designing new products and services, according to Deloitte. Listening to your customers’ feelings, as you would when communicating with a friend or family member, can have real business value.

Brands have come a long way since Damasio’s discovery regarding the importance of emotions. They’ve started to move away from sales-heavy, old-school marketing and tap into more nuanced ideas that surprise and nurture customers’ emotional side. What about your brand? Now is the time to try a different perspective from rational thinking and become more human.

Hannah Wren is an Email Marketing Specialist using customer data to develop multi-touch nurture programs for several audiences across the customer lifecycle, from on boarding and education to conversion and retention. Her hobbies include trying new foods and thinking about the human impact of technology. Connect with her on LinkedIn.