29 May 2019

What 2 years as a fruit vendor taught me about marketing automation

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You won’t find it on my LinkedIn profile, but for two years after my studies, I worked in a pop-up market fruit and vegetable stand. I started out working weekends, picking up shifts during the week when my schedule opened up. Eventually I was working six days a week selling produce at different weekly markets in Belgium. Now, as a marketing automation specialist, I no longer hawk cabbage and bananas for a living, but I’m constantly surprised finding parallels between my current work and my time spent in the market stalls.

Great marketing is about understanding your customer and what they need. Smart marketing is knowing where to put your energy when you do know, and marketing automation is about maximizing that energy, making sure that you’re in the right place, at the right time, saying and doing the right things. Surprisingly (or not), as much as these principles guide the marketing automation strategy and flows I implement with my clients, they also helped me sell a whole lot of mangoes.

In all cases, I need to know what conversation to be having with my customer or potential client. In marketing automation flows, I consider what phase of the buying process the customer is in, and tailor the approach to match. This makes natural sense to me because the same goes at the markets.

Be in the right place, at the right time

A fresh market is a battleground. There can be dozens of vendors selling very similar, if not the same products, employing all manner of tricks to stand out. Smiling people pushing samples, vendors calling out like carnival barkers, and impressive displays are found at almost every stand. How can you stand out?

When I had a choice about where to position my stand in the market, we always set up as close to the parking lot as possible. It might make sense to others to place their stand in the center of the market, where there is nearly always traffic--and of course many vendors do. However, in thinking about what your location means to the customer, I learned that by being close to the parking lot, and therefore near the entrance and exit, I had distinct opportunities.

The customer walking into the market had a specific set of behaviors that I came to know, and I could take advantage of being the first stall they saw. What proved to be even more valuable to us were the people on their way out. I quickly learned that they often had most things already crossed off their list, were probably a bit tired, and almost always were trying to juggle several overflowing shopping bags. I could tailor my approach to these needs--it even inspired us to offer a very popular lend-a-hand service, where we helped carry all the customer’s bags to their car (conveniently located just past our stand) after they finished shopping with us.

Understanding what it means to be in the right place at the right time is crucial in marketing automation, as is looking for new opportunities: cracking the code on which times make which places “right”. This is also significant when it comes to cross-selling and upselling. Clever wording and attractive images in an email to a return customer, triggered by special actions or events, can encourage diversification in purchasing--as does weighing your fruit with the scale way over by the vegetables, forcing you to walk past mouth-watering displays.

And hey, you said you want mangos, but will you be eating them right away? These smaller green ones that arrive by boat are totally fine (2€ each), but if you want a big, sweet fruit, I would definitely recommend these lovely yellow ones that come in by plane. Here, taste one! (7€ that you’re happy to pay.) Specific actions (saying you want mangoes, or clicking a specific link) triggers others (the gentle upsell). Knowing exactly when to use discounts and freebies helps push customers to convert more often and in bigger ways, while minimizing your cost.

Channel the message

Each channel has its own advantages and limitations. Email can hold a lot of important information, viewed when the client chooses, but not everyone is attentive to their inbox. Instagram can show off strong aspects of your brand and grow engagement, but you could get swept away by the scroll (or algorithm). Live events offer many important touch points to customers already showing lots of interest—but aren’t as accessible as online outlets. In the market, we couldn’t send push notifications, but we knew our channels well, and how to engage customers in them.

In the market, the most impressive channel is your visual display. Beautiful towers of produce greet you as you walk in, and catch your eye as you exit. Seasonal fruits are on display in the front, both to trigger the customer to ask about them, as well as to remind the vendor to push them (you can’t get crisp grapes like these all year!). This visual trigger is a soft nudge, but extremely effective.

For me personally, one-to-one conversations were my most important channel. Many vendors put a lot of effort into calling out, but I never felt like that channel fit my brand. I still had to adapt my conversations to the needs to the client in that moment, but I found time and time again that a conversation offering information resulted in more loyal, happy customers, and higher sales. Customers wanted basic information like price, but also information about new products, and recommendations for storing, cooking, and eating. Helping my customers feel informed about their purchases (both before and after), encouraged them purchase more, and kept them coming back.

Essential to all of this is aligning the message between all channels. I wouldn’t put displays of melons and peaches that I was trying to push, then spend time calling out about the offer on spinach I was running. Customers tend to prefer one clear message at a time, always in agreement with the greater business—in the same way that copy and CTAs should align, with one customer action requested at a time.

Let them walk the walk, assumption-free

It’s the top rule in user experience design, marketing campaigns, and sales in general: you can NOT judge a book by its cover—or a banana by its peel, as it were. This is to say that you can’t pretend to know the value a customer can offer until they ultimately convert—ideally several times over. People extensively research products online without buying, full shopping carts get abandoned, and people with Rolex watches don’t always shell out for the designer strawberries (yes, those are a thing). Past behavioral patterns aren’t a 100% guarantee either, but are much, much more indicative of future behavior.

This is why triggers based on behavior, time, and demonstrated interests are smart better bets to base automations on. You can’t rely on your customers to know exactly what they want, or even why they want it. Learning more about the common patterns makes automation more efficient, and also sells way more spring asparagus.

Don’t ignore your full toolkit

All experiences can help round out your knowledge, and I have seen this particularly in marketing. At the time, I didn’t expect those mornings spent building displays of tomatoes and eggplants to help me develop strong digital sales and customer nurturing instincts. And while years of experience in digital marketing and automations have taught me how to build effective flows and make the most out of the right data, those two years in the market gave me invaluable insight into the process. It turns out the marketplace is a great place for marketers to get their start.

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