One of the most profound business books I ever read was Permission Marketing by Seth Godin.

The ideas in the book were very innovative at the time. The Internet and e-mail marketing were still young, and, like the Wild Wild West, most marketers and business owners were still trying to “wrangle it in” and figure out how to leverage the Web’s possibilities… and, more important, turn those possibilities into profits.

In a nutshell, the book explained “how to turn strangers into friends and friends into customers.” The principle behind this is to first understand the difference between cold (or interruption) marketing – like those annoying phone calls you always seem to get during dinner asking you to subscribe to the local newspaper… and permission marketing – where the prospect is actually giving you permission to contact them by “opting in” to receive your messages.

To help you get the most out of your Internet marketing, I have expanded on Mr. Godin’s “stranger/friend/customer” concept and added two key components: multi-buyer and advocate. And I’ll show you how you can leverage each of these segments to help grow your business.

Leveraging Your Customers Throughout Their Life Cycle

You may think that a customer is someone who buys from you – period. But that’s a very limited view. From the instant you “meet” your customer… until he’s become a VIP buyer who’s spent hundreds or thousands of dollars with your company… you should be interacting with him in different ways. Treating him properly every step of the way will create a true win/win situation. Your customer will continue to enjoy satisfying experiences with your company, and your company will enjoy the positive effect this relationship will have on its bottom line.

Here are the five stages a customer can go through during his life cycle, and how you can make the most of each one…

Stage 1: Stranger

The stranger or “prospect” doesn’t know you. Your job is to get her attention. You have only a few seconds to get her to react – whether it’s by asking her to click on your ad or open your e-mail message. Which means that your copy for the ad headline or e-mail subject line is critical.

Once you’ve captured her attention, your #1 goal is to have this stranger “opt in” to receive your messages, giving you a chance to continue to bond with her. This is also the time to start to build trust. Show your creditability. And explain what you can do for her (fill a desire, answer a need).

Stage 2: Friend

The friend has demonstrated an interest in your initial promotion and has opted in to receive more information from you. This gives you an outstanding opportunity to introduce him to your philosophy, your company, and your mission, and to re-enforce how you can help him.

During this stage, it’s best to send a series of introduction e-mails (anywhere from 5 to 7) and withhold your new friends from your general mailing list. You don’t want them (the newest names on your list) to start receiving promotional messages BEFORE they receive some of your editorial messages.

We send six introductory e-mails to new Early to Rise subscribers. Each e-mail is a special issue of ETR that’s composed of articles that present our core philosophies. This gives our new subscribers a chance to “warm up” to our expert contributors, the format of our newsletter, and the topics we typically address. Only after they are warmed up do we start sending them ETR as usual – including our promotional e-mails.

Stage 3: Customer/Client

The customer (or client) is someone who has bought into your philosophy and purchased a product (or service) from you.

Many companies make the mistake of ending the customer relationship at this point. But after reading this article, you’ll know better… you’ll know that getting the customer is only the beginning. Keeping him is another story.

You don’t want to put all your eggs into one acquisition basket while having few or no retention efforts. Good retention strategies entail ongoing communication (both promotional and editorial), outstanding customer service, quality products, and fulfilling your promises. Of course there will always be things outside of your control (like losing customers to market conditions). But the idea is to be proactive and not reactive. Keep the “80/20 rule” in mind – which states that 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your customers.

Stage 4: Multi-Buyer

The multi-buyer is a customer who is tied into your brand and demonstrates product loyalty with your company. Multi-buyers have purchased several products from you, and are not afraid to spend money. These folks are your best list to roll out new products to or test higher price points. If you are thinking about creating a “VIP” or “Lifetime” product, you’re going to want to advertise to this list. Multi-buyers will have a high lifetime value (LTV) for you, and will likely purchase cross-channel. In other words, they will buy from you no matter how you contact them – whether via banner ads, e-mail marketing, direct mail, or telemarketing.

Stage 5: Advocate

This segment of your customer database is your holy grail. Your list of advocates is made up of the most satisfied and loyal of your customers – and contains your best “unpaid” employees. Advocates will do your advertising for you by telling friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances about your products and services. And in today’s Net-based environment, advocates are a major force in getting your name in the blogsphere and social communities… and spreading your marketing message virally.

So how do you create advocates? Well, advocates are not created, they’re cultivated over time. The advocate must, of course, believe in your products and services. But for this special group, the customer experience goes deeper… to an emotional level. The advocate feels personally touched by your service, product, or guru. Because of you, her life is changed – and she’s busting at the seams to help others as she has been helped.

Your advocates are people you want testimonials from. People you can invite to be in BETA test or focus groups. And people to get feedback from to help develop future products. Even better, this group can help you make more money in the future. At ETR, some of our best JV (joint venture) partnerships have been with our advocates – people who understand our core values, respect our business, and have a company or product that’s synergistic to our own.

You want to treat these folks like the VIPs they are and invite them to special events or let them be the first to receive discounted offers. You may even consider creating affiliate marketing or referral programs to “formalize” this group’s verbal recommendations.

Always keep in mind that the effort does not stop at the sale. Since it costs more to obtain new leads than to retain existing customers – now, more than ever – you have to know how to optimize the five stages of the customer life cycle.

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WendyWendy Montes de Oca, MBA is President of Precision Marketing and Media, LLC and publisher of the popular marketing and business building newsletter, Precision Marketing. She is an online marketing and direct response expert with nearly 20 years of experience leading the marketing efforts for top publishers such as Agora/Early to Rise, Weiss Research, and NewsMax as well as Fortune 500 companies such as General Electric, Chase Manhattan Bank, CitiGroup, and Automatic Data Processing.

Her consulting clients (past and present) is like a “Who’s Who” including top copywriters, anti-aging nutritionists, online publishers, supplement companies, travel service providers, political websites and more!

Her background includes multi-channel marketing (print, email, direct mail, radio, TV) with expertise in direct response marketing for the Web. Her marketing initiatives helped bring in millions of dollars in revenues for the companies she has worked for.

Wendy received a Bachelor of Science degree from St. John’s University and a Master of Business Administration degree from Nova South Eastern University. Throughout her career, she has been recognized with various awards for quality, innovation, teamwork, and new product/new business development.

She is also a distinguished speaker at marketing conferences such as Specialized Information Publishers Association (SIPA) and author of several marketing and business articles for Early to Rise, Makepeace Total Package, and Target Marketing, just to name a few. Her blog, www.musclemarketing.blogspot.com  was named by marketing industry staple, Best of Web, as “top internet marketing blog.” For more information visit www.precisionmarketingmedia.com.