The Science Behind Customer Loyalty

Apple. Sephora. Diet Coke. We can all name the brands whose customers go beyond simple fandom, whose most devoted audiences demonstrate rabid, unwavering loyalty to the brands they love.

But can this sort of passionate customer devotion be engineered?  It turns out, there’s a science behind customer loyalty, and by integrating a few of these principles into your social media and marketing strategy, your brand can reap the rewards of a more engaged and faithful fan base.

1. Expected vs. Unexpected Rewards

A lot of brand marketers will tell you their #1 social metric is customer engagement and response.  Yet if you’re doing the same thing, day in and day out, creating a predictable cadence of social postings to your fan base, you may be diminishing your effect. 

A group of British researchers found that when subjects encountered an unexpected reward, as opposed to a predictable, anticipated reward, they experienced a huge dopamine rush in their brains.  (Dopamine is the nifty little feel-good hormone responsible for habit-forming behavior.)

Related: Becoming More Social: The Impact of Habits

So what does this tell us about marketing?  Regardless of whether the “rewards” you offer to customers on social media are intangible things like unique brand content or more tangible offers like sales and discount codes, the clear message is to mix it up and not get stuck in a social media rut! 

Experiment with posting times and formats. Use social listening to engage in proactive customer outreach. And make sure whatever you’re putting out is useful, valuable content that your customers will see as rewarding.  Soon, you may just find your customers have made a habit of engaging with you.

2. Social Identity Theory

Chances are, you’ve done countless persona studies, focus groups and other research on who your customers are.  But have you told them about each other?

A famous study by German psychologist Henri Tajfel tells us that in-groups, or groups that people form based on certain shared traits, are an important part of the way people choose to define themselves.  Once a person feels like they are a part of an established in-group, they will often become increasingly more loyal to their group.

Related:  #monsterloyalty: Jackie Huba shares Lady Gaga's loyalty lessons in new book

As marketers, we can encourage customers to identify as part of an in-group focused on our brand by giving our users a common name (for example, how Lady Gaga calls her fans “Little Monsters”), helping customers connect to one another (like in a customer community or forum), and making clear-cut distinctions between our brands and the competition (the Rob Lowe ads from DirecTV come to mind.)

3. Shared Values

If you’re part of a large company, your brand likely has some sort of corporate giving program and a set of core values that each employee learns about at orientation. Research shows that getting this content out of the employee handbook and onto your social channels could add a nice boost to your brand loyalty.

Related: This Year We Resolve to Keep Scaring, Paddling, & Eating Pizza

A recent study by SAP shows that 30% of respondents felt that “shared values” were important in determining what brands they were loyal to.  A study in the Harvard Business Review further backs this up, stating that 64% of consumers who felt they had a relationship with a particular brand said shared values was the reason why.

Sure, it might feel out of place to post an Instagram photo of your finance department planting a community garden, when, at the end of the day, you’re trying to sell soft drinks. But the science shows that highlighting brand beliefs and efforts at giving back are increasingly an important part of the marketing communications that consumers expect.

I don’t mean to imply that you can engineer customer loyalty like a mad scientist in the lab. But using the available data to identify proven strategies that build authentic and enduring fan relationships is just plain smart. 

See how Brooks Brothers shared an unexpected reward with Alexi Lalas to build a deeper relationship with the soccer star himself and with fans.

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