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Building the Ideal Customer Personalization Experience at Scale with Inception Group Head of Marketing, Simon Allison

Massive Rocket Simon Allison

These days, personalisation isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s a must. Amazon knows what types of products we like, Netflix recommends shows based on our watching history, and Facebook’s algorithm tailors content according to what we read and like most. Customers are starting to expect communication that is personalized for their interests.

As an organization grows, however, personalisation can become much more complex and unwieldy. It’s important to build a personalisation strategy that will grow with your business and that will continue to be effective. Simon Allison has spent his career in the hospitality sector. He’s currently the Head of Marketing at Inception Group and we spoke to him about how his team crafts their ideal customer experience and the role of personalisation in helping them do this as they’ve grown.

Simon Allison | Interview

Simon started out at Eclectic Bars, which runs several of the U.K.’s bar brands. He was first a Promotions Manager at Bondai and eventually became the Marketing Manager at Embargo 59. In 2012, Simon moved over to The Roof Gardens as their Club Manager. Two years later, he joined Inception Group as their Head of Marketing, and he’s been there ever since.

Can you tell us a bit about Inception Group?

It’d be a pleasure. Inception Group is a collection of 13 unique cocktail and experiential bars. There are so many bars in London, we wanted to differentiate ourselves by focusing on experiences that you can’t recreate at home. These aren’t just places that you stumble into for a drink. Everything about our bars is geared toward providing a very particular experience: the decor, the way the staff speaks to you, the music, and much more. We have everything from murder mysteries to gin safaris. My job is to develop these experiences creatively and then market them—it’s a lot of fun! 

The company has been around for a decade or so, starting off with small speakeasy-type venues but have since grown and grown. Before the pandemic, there were around 45 people in the head office and roughly 400 staff. It’s a great culture—our mission is to offer unique and memorable experiences, so we’re encouraged to think outside the box and are provided the freedom to make mistakes along the way.

Sounds like a lot of fun. So what are the specific steps that you go through when developing an experience?

When we first started, we had a much simpler an approach—we looked at what was happening in other big cities (like New York) and tried to adapt it to London and put our own twist on it. However, we’ve since become a lot more scientific and data-led in our approach. These days, we have a specific formula for bringing experiences to market. It follows these steps:

  1. We try to understand our customers’ interests, primarily by looking into data from social networks. 
  2. We create experiences to match a demand and do research to ensure we are not in a market that has already been catered to by our competitors.
  3. We conduct a lot of testing— surveying our top-tier audience (the top 5% of customers) to ask:
    • What they would pay for this sort of event.
    • What they’d call the event/what they think of our proposed name.
    • What they think about the event –  we give away experiences in exchange for their in-depth feedback. In many cases they become our brand ambassadors, which is great for generating buzz around the event.
  4. We then market the project— ensuring we get the exposure we need before it opens to the public.

How do you blend online and offline channels?

We have slowly been transitioning towards becoming more and more digital. We focus on our ability to leverage the power of digital channels but we  also understand that at the end of the day, our offline, in-person experience is what really counts. I feel that the real magic lies at the intersection between the two.

It’s strange when I think back to what the company was like 6 years ago when I first started. There was no focus on digital: no strategy, no KPIs, nothing. We brought in a digital marketing manager, built a social team, and instantly saw the biggest growth in the history of the company—suddenly we could actually track everything that we were doing and justify investments. 

We’ve also become very press-led in recent years. One of our businesses managed to get into BuzzFeed and that one piece of press literally changed our company forever—it really signalled the need to put a lot more emphasis on online press. 

Many companies find that they lose that personal touch when they grow rapidly—was this a problem you dealt with?

It really was. In the beginning, we were very personal as we had fewer guests and the whole operation had a smaller, cosier feel to it. As we grew and started embracing digital, we were very conscious that naturally there was a perception we would become more mass market and inevitably part of the reason you fall in love with some bars is because they are new, small, independent, so when they become part of a bigger group under the same brand, it’s challenging, it’s worrying! We are always so mindful of this danger and constantly remind ourselves to keep it personal, keep it small and not lose the essence of what prompted the growth.

We want to always have that open dialogue with our customers, a two-way conversation. It’s really difficult for us to produce what our customers want if we don’t actually speak to them.

Do you find that one channel is generally more effective in maintaining this dialogue than others?

Instagram has consistently been our best channel, though we’ve found over the past couple of years that we’re spending more money on social media for less and less return. Email marketing is still a great tool, however I think it’s probably more challenging than ever, it needs real thought/strategy. We used to send out an endless stream of communications, but after GDPR, we scaled back to around 10% of what we’d been doing previously. Despite this, the ROI for each email has actually risen, it’s bizarre! One email can directly drive a ton of bookings if done well.

So what kind of email communication strategy do you have at the moment and how does this tie into your overall customer experience? 

Our first email is always a booking confirmation—after the experience itself, we send out another email thanking you for the visit and asking for feedback. This is crucial to help gather as much customer information and data as possible. Once you’ve visited 5 times, we then start sending out rewards to try and build loyalty, and our top-tier customers always get special offers such as invitations to join us at our new bar or to test out a new experience for free.

We’ve put a lot of work into personalisation, putting the focus back on the customer and keeping the interactions human. We leverage the data collected about the people coming into our venues —things like their average spend, venues visited, when they go out, how long they stay out, etc. We then use this information to guide our personalisation efforts in the future. Because most of our guests book in advance and a high percentage of them are repeat customers, we tend to already know who they are and have some insight into their preferences.

For instance, we might send out an email saying “We see that you loved drinking our Old Fashioneds at this venue, so how about you come and join us for an exclusive cocktail-making workshop?”. These generally work pretty well. Plus, we also obviously have special seasonal offers and emails that we send out (such as for Christmas-themed events).

How do you remain as human as possible despite operating at scale?

There are plenty of venues where people don’t pre-book, so upon arrival, we ask our staff to take the customers’ names and ask if they’ve ever visited before. If they have, then our staff will be able to see 3 or so pieces of key customer information such as “This is the second time they’ve visited this venue”, “They love champagne”, or “They were unhappy with the slow service last time”. 

This helps us so much. It means that our staff can quickly scan the screen and go “Would you like the same table as last time”, or they can even ask if they want the same drinks. I think this is one of the main ways that we try to keep as much of a human touch as possible. We want people to feel like valued customers who we really appreciate, instead of just another set of punters to come through the door.

Massive Rocket Theory

3 steps to successful personalisation at scale

When done well, personalisation can dramatically improve the customer experience and result in significant upticks in revenue. 71% of customers report some level of frustration when dealing with “impersonal” shopping experiences, and 75% believe that companies should use personal information to improve the customer experience. 

But how can businesses effectively personalise at scale? Here are three crucial steps to keep in mind.

1. Leverage automation/A.I.

Nowadays, a marketer is arguably only as good as the technology at their disposal. AI- and automation-based tools can help marketers provide personalised experiences at scale. For example, you could use a marketing automation tool to offer a personalised discount after a certain number of purchases, to send an email reminding customers that they’ve left items in their shopping cart, or to provide personalised content on your homepage according to each user’s purchase history and preferences.

2. Regularly reassess your strategy

Just because something worked in the past, doesn’t mean it’ll continue to work going forward. Imagine you’re a small family accounting firm. Ever since you started, you’ve made an effort to send each of your 20 clients handwritten birthday and Christmas cards—this personal touch has been well-received, and has helped you nurture long-lasting relationships. But if the firm grows and now has 2000 clients across the world, it may no longer be feasible to continue this.

Truly personalised cards are a nice touch from a small business. However, if you’re a large corporation, these gestures may feel impersonal and fall flat as customers may expect more. Make sure to continually reassess your strategy as you grow to confirm that your efforts are actually providing customers with the personalised content, offers or communication they really want.

3. Don’t go overboard

Modern marketers have an array of customer data at their disposal—but when it comes to personalisation, more isn’t always better. As much as consumers appreciate personalisation, many people still carry lingering fears about ‘Big Brother’ watching over them at all times. Having a conversation about a certain topic, only to open Instagram the next minute and see your feed littered with adverts relating to this subject, can be unnerving, to say the least.

Personalisation is a little like seasoning. Too little, and your customer experience may seem quite bland. Too much, however, and it can be overpowering. Nobody wants to browse a website for ten minutes only to receive email after email of “We saw you were browsing x, how about y?”. 

What’s more, many think that over-personalisation may in fact do long-lasting damage to your brand and may relegate you to the spam folder. Assess your personalisation strategy regularly and make sure it’s actually providing tangible results. 

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