What’s the Frequency? Q&A with Andrea Godfrey

To answer that question — which puzzles marketers and plagues consumers — Andrea Godfrey, assistant professor of marketing in the School of Business Administration at the University of California, Riverside, spent 39 months working with two co-authors to analyze phone, mail and e-mail communication between an auto dealership and its customers. The result was “Enough Is Enough! The Fine Line in Executing Multichannel Relational Communication,” published in the July 2011 issue of Journal of Marketing.

Although the study cautions marketers not to oversaturate consumers with heaps of communication, it also made a discovery that even Godfrey admits was a surprise: Customers are willing to take on at least twice as many direct mail messages as communications through any other medium. Because of this, the authors suggest that companies not only keep mail as a key part of their communications arsenal — but that they consider boosting their mail spend.

Godfrey recently discussed her findings.

Deliver: The age of digital communications has meant increased frequency of marketing messages to consumers. Generally speaking, what did your study find about heightened communications frequency?

Andrea Godfrey: Many companies believe that one way to build stronger customer relationships is to increase the amount of contact they have with customers. That makes sense, of course, but our findings suggest that taking this “more is better” approach isn’t always beneficial for building customer relationships and, in fact, can actually drive customers away.

Deliver: Interesting. And yet the study also discovered that customers will tolerate twice as much mail as e-mail contact. Why?

Godfrey: This finding was unexpected — but one explanation might be that consumers find it obtrusive when companies contact them by telephone or even by e-mail. On the other hand, when customers receive information by mail, they can review the information when it’s convenient for them. As a result, customers might be more receptive to the information and more tolerant of being contacted more often if the communication is by mail.

Deliver: So should CMOs boost their mail spend?

Godfrey: While it’s not accurate to say that mail is the single best communication approach for all companies, our findings suggest that mail should continue to be an important part of a company’s customer contact strategy. For certain types of companies or for particular types of messages, mail may actually be more effective than other communication channels at driving customer purchasing.

Deliver: What are some of the other key highlights of this study?

Godfrey: One of the main takeaways of the study was that the ideal amount of communication tends to vary for different communication channels. Companies shouldn’t assume that the ideal number of contacts when using mail will be the same when using the phone or e-mail. Another highlight was the importance of matching the communication channel used with customers’ preferences. Using contact channels that a customer has a high preference for significantly boosts the effectiveness of the communication.

As I mentioned earlier, the overall effectiveness of mail communication was one of the biggest surprises of the study. The other finding that was unexpected was that multiple channels can exacerbate some customers’ negative reactions to receiving too much contact from a company. Although there isn’t a lot of research on this type of customer communication, prior findings have suggested that using multiple communication channels creates synergies that have a positive effect on customer loyalty. Our findings go against that belief.

Deliver: What are the detrimental effects of communicating using multiple channels?

Godfrey: When companies contact customers through multiple channels, there is a risk that customers may feel bombarded by the amount of communication they’re receiving. As a result, companies need to carefully manage the total amount of contacts they have with their customers across all of the various channels that make up their marketing communication strategy.

Deliver: Is there an ideal communications frequency?

Godfrey: The specific number of contacts a company should have with a customer over a given period of time will vary from company to company. But one of the key takeaways from our study is that some communication is good, but more communication is not necessarily better. The ideal level lies somewhere in between, and companies should make an effort to examine customers’ responses to their communication campaigns to try and identify that optimal level. Otherwise, they risk wasting valuable marketing resources or, worse, driving customers away.

Deliver: Does the ideal level of communication through one channel decrease as the volume in another channel increases?

Godfrey: Our findings indicate that as a company increases the amount of contact through one channel, the ideal level of contact through other channels tends to decrease. If a company increases the amount of contact it sends to customers by mail, it should likely decrease the amount of contact with those customers by phone or e-mail. The overall story indicates that customers will be receptive to a total number of contacts across all channels.

Deliver: When the ideal level of communication is exceeded, how do customers respond?

Godfrey: Once the ideal level of communication is reached, customers start to taper off spending, so companies will see diminishing returns on investment. As marketing communication increases beyond that ideal level, customers may actually become angered and stop spending with the company all together.

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