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    Customer Service In Good Form

    Online product registration forms can be a great benefit for manufacturers.

    The traditional distribution channel for manufacturers is an efficient process for moving goods to the end customer, because it's more efficient to ship a large quantity to a few distributors than many smaller shipments directly to retailers. However, traditional mass distribution is not very efficient for keeping track of exactly who bought which product...and why they bought it.

    Product registration cards have been packed along with many types of products for years. But it's hard to motivate customers to complete the cards, and it's costly for manufactures to enter data from product registration cards. That means there may be limited value in building and maintaining these databases.

    Software companies have used online registration for several years, because it's easy for customers to provide registration data while the software is installing. Online product registration is great for the manufacturer, because there is no data entry charge, no postage, and fewer errors.

    On the other hand, traditional products pose several problems in motivating customers to complete registration forms online. The first problem is that customers are more interested in using their new purchase than turning on their computer to find the Web site and complete the registration form.

    Then, there's the challenge of providing customers with a tangible benefit for registering the product. If you've filled out those cards and expected to hear from the manufacturer -- but never did -- then you know what it's like when customers are asked for personal data on the product registration card, only to never hear from the manufacturer again.

    There is a great deal that can be learned from the profile data on product registration forms, such as which product features were most influential in the selection of the product, and how customers learned about the brand, as well as the demographic and lifestyle data.

    One way to motivate people to answer questions on the Web accurately is to let them know ahead of time that the data will be used to provide them with useful information and possible future benefits.

    There are several ways to provide useful information to customers based on the profile data they provide via a product registration form. For instance, a set of specific product usage tips can be displayed on the Web site or sent to the customer via e-mail. A personalized e-mail newsletter can be sent that uses profile data to tailor newsletter content to the customer's specific product. If a product requires consumable supplies, customers will respond to e-mails offering such products because it makes their lives easier.

    One of the other benefits of having a strong product registration process is to overcome post-purchase dissonance (sometimes called cognitive dissonance). What's that? It's when a customer decides to return a product for a variety of reasons, such as not being sure they made the right decision. Once they've registered the product, there is less likelihood that the product will be returned.

    Companies that sell multiple products to the same customers as their needs change can use an online product registration system to build a database of customer profiles for ongoing marketing. Here's what I mean:

    Lowrance Electronics sells sonar fish locators, GPS, and aviation electronics products that match the activity and interest level of people who fish, boat, and fly. By collecting demographic and lifestyle information while registering a new product, Lowrance learns who its end customers are and can create customer retention programs tailored to specific products and specific customer interests.

    In addition, by relating serial number data back to shipments to its distributors and retailers, Lowrance can monitor the length of time products are in the distribution channel.

    3COM uses a variety of Web-based product registration forms to capture data about customers and their use of 3COM products. But a company doesn't have to be as large as 3COM to use online product registration. Frontline Test Equipment sells its test equipment through a traditional distribution channel and applies the same concepts to capture a more limited set of profile data on customers who buy its products.

    If you sell through a traditional channel and have been looking for an easy way to build a database of customer purchase data, look at adding an online product registration form to your marketing program. With appropriate incentives, customers can be motivated to provide profile data that you may not be able to obtain in any other way. In addition, this data can feed an ongoing customer retention program that promotes supplementary products and generates additional revenue.

    Cliff Allen is the co-author of the book One-to-One Web Marketing; 2nd Ed., published by John Wiley & Sons, and has consulted with companies on strategic marketing for 20 years.

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