The characteristics of champions: How marketers can better attract and retain customers

5th Aug 2016

The Rio Olympics are just a few hours away, and the world’s top sporting coaches and trainers have been putting athletes through their paces in the months leading up to this point, honing their skills and focus to win. But how have these coaches identified the athlete with the right skill, determination and talent to succeed?

Imagine, if you will, two Olympic swimming coaches, each has a spectacularly different strategy for winning. The first puts most of his energy into dragging as many random people into the pool as possible. His goal is 100 new people every month. Someone, he thinks, will prove to be a winner. The second focuses all of her energy on a much smaller set of people who have the right characteristics to become champions. Which coach do you think has a better chance of winning Olympic Gold?

The first coach might get lucky, but the odds are stacked against him. In each random addition of 100 people, he might end up with a half dozen who can’t swim. Some will never even get into the pool. The people who do dive in will be a mixed bag: some will be lousy swimmers, some will be pretty good, and a lot will be stunningly average. Nobody becomes an Olympian overnight. A recent Under Armour commercial featuring Michael Phelps offers a tiny glimpse at the huge amount of hard training that it takes to get there. The odds of finding a future Phelps through this kind of random approach are vanishingly small.

The second coach has far fewer swimmers in the pool. But they all already swim powerfully and are capable of delivering great performances. But more than that, the second coach has information on her side that let’s her know how to recognise a promising swimmer. She knows what training regimens will reliably boost performance. She understands the effect of proper nutrition on her athletes. She has a system that works.

The connection between acquisition and retention.

This coaching analogy illustrates the need for marketers to better connect acquisition and retention to succeed in long-term growth. When a marketer blindly tries to acquire as many random customers as possible, it’s really a lottery approach. There’s a tiny possibility that you might get lucky and hit the jackpot. But even if you pull off a huge win and acquire a new customer who becomes one of your very best ever, the fact remains that luck is not a system. You’re no more likely to randomly acquire a super-customer next year than you were before you won.

But a disciplined marketer who understands the value of retention and maximising lifetime value takes a systematic approach. There’s a strong probability that most of her customers can become higher-performing customers – and some may begin delivering truly Olympic results. But more than that, with each passing year her system gains the data and intelligence needed to continually improve.

Making a big splash is not the same as driving real results.

The trap for marketers is that the first approach – pushing hundreds of customers into the pool every month – creates an enormous splash. It’s loud. There’s a lot of activity. It looks like really big things are happening even when they aren’t. However, if you look closely, you realise that the people splashing the loudest are the worst swimmers and a lot of people are trying to get out of the pool altogether.

A disciplined system, by contrast, is comparatively quiet. The main sound is powerful, smooth, efficient swimming strokes punctuated by the ticking and clicking of stopwatches recording progress. Yet thinking about acquisition and retention as an either/or is as pointless as asking whether a swimmer should use only their arms or only their legs.

The only sensible answer is to use both; an acquisition system that is driven by retention is like a swimmer who gains momentum with every stroke. Data-driven interplay between the two not only creates headway, but multiple length leads and champion-level performance.

Smart marketers need to train their management to recognise and value the signs of steady progress, and to ignore the urge to make a big splash. There’s a process that turns promising prospects into Olympian performances. It may not be flashy, but it works wonders.

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