Why Preference Centers Don’t Work – and How they Could

Whenever people ask me if they should create preference centers I don’t say, “Yes, do it,” or “No, don’t bother.”

Instead, I ask them, “How hard do you want to work?” The usual response is “Huh? How hard could it be? It’s just one page!”

A preference center is only as important to your customers as you make it. Filling out preferences isn’t the last step. It’s only the beginning.

First Challenge: Develop Your Strategy

First, you ask customers to give you their preferences. Then, you have to persuade them to update their data again and again.

You need a strategy that covers the practical aspects of running a preference center – one that’s useful for your customers as well as your email intentions.

This phase of your preference center development is the most important but also the hardest. It’s also why many preference centers don’t work. People go straight for the tactics – thinking up questions and formatting the page – but have no plan behind it.

Your strategy should incorporate these components:

  • What’s the value exchange of our preference center?
  • What information do we want?
  • Should we ask a few basic questions or launch an advanced preference center that includes account information and uses progressive profiling?
  • How should we launch the preference center?
  • How should we ask customers to update their preference data?
  • Should we offer incentives, to encourage customers to fill out and update their preference, and do we have the budget to pay for them?
  • What message style or content generates more preference center visits?
  • How will we test the effectiveness of our preference center messaging?
  • What are our KPIs of success?
  • Who’s responsible for managing the preference center?

That’s a pretty long list and it can make for a long strategic development process. But you need this kind of detailed thinking to create a preference center that provides value for everybody.

In fact, your strategy for creating a preference center should be longer than the actual development stage – maybe a year of white-boarding and discussion. But, the more you think it out ahead of time, the more useful your preference center will be.

Next Challenge: Using the Data

So, you’ve got some of your customers to give you preference data. (Be realistic. You won’t get everybody to hand over data, either because they don’t like filling out forms,  they don’t trust you to keep their data safe, or they just ignore your requests).

Those who do take the time to tell you about themselves, what they like and what they don’t want, will now expect to see those preferences reflected in the messages you send.

Suppose you ask me my pants size. If I tell you I’m a 38 waist and you send me offers for skinny jeans that only go up to a size 28, I’m going to be angry. Or, I’ll ignore you. Either way, I’m not going to buy anything, and now you’ve made me mad because I gave you my data and I expect you to remember it.

Combating decayed data: This is another problem with preference centers. Sure, you get lots of data you can use for segmentation, triggered messaging, analytics and building demographic profiles or buyer personas, but that information has an expiration date.

Preferences change as the customer’s life changes. They can go stale after just three to four months. That’s why your preference-center strategy must include a plan for updating the data as well as collecting it.

Final Challenge: Validating and Cross-Referencing Preferences

A preference center shows you only part of the picture. Your customers might tell you they prefer golf over tennis or have daughters instead of sons, but their buying behavior shows them checking out tennis racquets and buying boys’ clothing. Are they lying? No, they’re probably shopping for gifts.

Suppose you see behavioral data that imply gift-buying, such as sending items to a different address, or heavy shopping near traditional gift-giving holidays like Valentine’s Day or Christmas. Or, your checkout form includes a box shoppers can tick if the purchase is a gift.

Now you have preference data refined by behavior. Use it to create a segment of customers who buy certain products as gifts rather than for personal use. These people don’t need a steady stream of messaging for a one-time purchase. But, they might value gift suggestions triggered at the product purchase anniversary.

Now you see why I said creating a preference center would be hard work.

But, if you take the time to come up with a workable strategy and not just copy what somebody else did, you’ll create a preference center that gives your customers more control and generates useful data you can convert into relevant messages.

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