By Nick Romano November 10, 2005 -- We all know it's a hot issue. With customers as a company's most valuable asset, every smart company is developing a strategy to speak to them directly. We know by now that organizations that use what they know about a customer to communicate one-on-oneâ€”and through multiple channels--will ensure that its customers always understand and appreciate the value they're getting from doing business with the company. The customer experience will be a positive one, with retention and loyalty the happy result. An effective messaging strategy, when drilled down, is really all about the quality of the content. But companies face a variety of organizational and technical challenges when it comes to implementing an effective communications and messaging strategy. Linking the different silos of information a company has about its customers often requires a reexamination of business processes and a comprehensive strategy that goes beyond a simple message. To be truly successful, the creation of an effective messaging strategy must be a cross-functional exercise that incorporates marketing, customer support, IT and other lines of business in a team effort to consolidate what each area knows about the customer. Further, the strategy must manage the communications and customer responses over a realistic time horizon. And it is only when the information in each of these areas are linked together over a period of timeâ€”with a sound strategy driving the processâ€”that companies will reap the most ROI from its communications with them. It's all about the content Developing a dialogue between the company and its customer is meant to create an environment that better meets the needs of the customer and provides the company an ongoing opportunity to communicate with them. This means that an effective messaging strategy, when drilled down, is really all about the quality of the content. But who creates it? Who manages it? And how will you measure effectiveness? And most importantly, it is imperative to know who is really driving the process when it comes to creating targeted messages. Are you sending customers information you want them to know, or are you letting customers tell you (through previous interactions) what information he or she wants to receive? To answer these questions, you need to take a step back and look carefully at your company's process flow. Exploring how the company manages the customer experience is the first step. It is important to consider what channels you use to communicate with customersâ€”paper, web, telephone, front-line staffâ€”as well as your customer touch points, such as direct mail, inserts, statements, online interactions, and then prioritize this information based on their ability to drive increased sales, customer retention or improved customer value. Are you telling customers what you want them to know, or letting them tell you what they want to receive? Deciding which individuals or departments are responsible for each component of the content, what they supply, where they get it, and how often they generate it, is critical to assembling quality content as well. Put yourself in your customers' shoes and ask if they are getting content that is relevant to them in a format they want. Gathering this type of information will help get a unified view of the needs, preferences and recent interactions with your customers. In doing so, you can ensure you are developing messages that are consistent in content and presentation across all media channels. You can better personalize the content with relevant information and cross-product marketing. And you can customize the content and delivery more easily, making it possible to respond better to customer choices and options. The Rule of Five With your information process on the road, the next steps require taking a look at the strategy for delivering your messages. This is driven by the following Five Rules of Messaging: Message zones. Proper presentation of the message content is key. Are you managing the white space around printed documents effectively? Have you put the most important content first in all communications? Are any messages too long or too short? How can they be adjusted to provide more clarity? Message formats. Consider which delivery formats have been most well-received by customers and which ones should be changed or discarded. Are you using images and charts for better understanding? Would a teaser on page one be effective in directing the reader to a detailed section or message? Message triggers. Who is getting the message? The things that drive the need to communicate with your customer are usually marketing campaigns, customer transactions, and other drivers such as lifestyle events, changes in account status, etc. Message effectiveness. Test your messages (on your family, employees, and then small customer test groups) to ensure they are saying what you want them to and are providing the optimum results you desire. Play devil's advocate and pick them apart until you are completely satisfied. Consider whether you are sending the right number of communications to your customers and not over or under mailing communications to them. Message tracking. Your customers and their needs are constantly changing. Establish tracking measures during the strategy phase, including response rates, reductions in contact center calls and mean call times. It is imperative that message delivery and response results for each customer are tracked and analyzed to further develop content. As more data becomes available over time, review it for trends often. Continue to adjust your strategy based on the results you find. The benefits reach everyone An effective messaging strategy can bring benefits to the entire company. It can reduce document production costs (including inserts, direct mail, handling and postage) and reduce calls to contact centers by doing a better job of providing customers with the information they need and can understand. The real benefit comes from the simple fact that messages that are relevant to the recipient and delivered via their preferred method are valued and read. They tell a customer you have taken the time to learn what is important to them--and you are using that information to have a dialogue with them. By putting a strategy in place to create personalized messages focused on growing the relationship, you are sure to deliver an experience that will benefit the customer and win you business.