Marketing Services

Loyalty Marketing Refresh: How to Craft a Go-to-Market Strategy for Program Changes

It’s an exciting (and a bit frazzling) time for loyalty marketing. Big brands like Walmart and United Airlines closed the year by announcing changes to their customer loyalty programs, setting up momentum for 2024:

Each faces a different go-to-market (GTM) reality for its refreshed customer loyalty program. With nearly 5,000 stores in the U.S. alone, Walmart can engage customers with in-person and in-app messaging at the moments they’re most conscious of their spending. Likewise, United also needs a targeted GTM campaign — but it doesn’t have the in-person channel advantage of a retail giant like Walmart.

REPORTGlobal Credit Card Rewards Programs: How Consumer Preferences Change by Region

Moreover, United needs an affluent segment of its customer base to take advantage of the airline's new perks (by, say, putting repeat purchases on a United credit card). That means United has to reach a much narrower audience than Walmart, which can market its loyalty program to literally every shopper.

Both cases show a deep, timely understanding of your customers is key to building a GTM strategy that generates long-term momentum, drives new signups, and differentiates your program in the market. Use these best practices to build a GTM strategy that propels your refreshed loyalty program long after launch.

1. Align Your Go-to-Market Strategy Around a Clear Vision

Starbucks drove startup-like numbers for its loyalty program by launching personalized games. “It's doubled their email redemptions, which is insane performance for email — and generated a threefold increase in the incremental spend of customers redeeming offers,” Billie Loewen, host of WillowTree’s growth marketing podcast Room For Growth, said.

The move shows Starbucks saw two growth levers for its loyalty program refresh that many competitors didn’t: gamification and personalization.

The takeaway: Starbucks looked at the same market forces its competitors faced, yet articulated a different vision for its revamped loyalty program, focused on personalization and interaction.

That vision, based on an of-the-moment understanding of its customers, meant Starbucks was already several steps ahead of its competition in taking its loyalty changes to market. Consider how quickly consumer behavior — a primary driver of loyalty program trends — keeps changing due to factors such as:

So, whereas competitors emphasized flexibility and variety, Starbucks focused on something more powerful: a real-time personalized experience.

2. Partner with the Right Digital Experience Consultancy

The more precise the vision behind your refreshed loyalty program, the easier time you’ll have finding the right partner to help take it to market. But the right digital experience agency goes far beyond helping you refine and execute your go-to-market strategy. They also help you:

  • scale audience research so you can find deeper customer insights in less time
  • identify the best investments based on your goals and existing MarTech stack
  • know what channels to prioritize and what metrics to measure

Imagine that, like Starbucks, you revamped your loyalty program with real-time personalization. Doing so could mean a significant investment in new technology — a loyalty platform powered by AI, new cloud infrastructure, and redesigned data architecture.

Such technology facilitates the delivery of your new loyalty program while also helping you measure the impact of your GTM efforts. Now, you can adjust and iterate your loyalty marketing strategy in real-time as you see its effect on customers.

The right digital experience partner helps navigate these new realities of loyalty and rewards programs. In addition to sharpening your GTM strategy, the right partner helps identify the right investments and shorten your time to value, so you reach positive ROI sooner than later.

3. Refresh Your Understanding of Your Target Audience

When building the GTM strategy for your revamped loyalty program, you’ll likely have the following:

  • customer data used to develop your previous GTM strategy
  • customer data you’ve collected since launching your previous GTM strategy

This customer data can be jet fuel or a boat anchor for your relaunch. It all depends on how you use it. The most important reason for choosing the right digital experience partner is to get fresh eyes on your audiences and customer data, helping you avoid biases, blindspots, and outdated thinking.

The right agency partner also understands customers grow more sophisticated over time — and keeps pace with how their preferences change. That means they can pick up your data, expand it, and refine it even further. The result is a GTM strategy that:

  • maps how your customers perceive value and what needs drive that perception
  • segments your customers far more granularly, enabling real-time personalization
  • plugs directly into your loyalty platform, CRM, and other marketing technology

4. Develop Your Core Go-to-Market Messaging

With a clear vision for your refreshed loyalty program’s impact, plus a refreshed understanding of audiences, you’re ready to develop your core GTM messaging. This messaging:

  • positions your program’s benefits as the answer to your customers’ needs
  • differentiates your loyalty program from competing programs in the market

Develop your GTM messaging by testing and retesting it with members and nonmembers before you commit to it. The feedback you receive will be invaluable and shed light on how customers perceive your loyalty program's value and the needs driving that perception.

Take financial services loyalty programs as an example. A bank or credit card provider might be bullish on promoting its points system because it offers members the greatest overall value. But in testing go-to-market language, they may learn that most members react much more positively to a cash-back option, even when it’s pointed out that it delivers less value than points.

A/B testing travel vs. cash back rewards go-to-market language for a customer loyalty program launch

Build cohorts of members and nonmember customers to test your language, then iterate based on what you learn. Make sure these cohorts represent various customer segments (or potential segments) that you plan to market to.

5. Identify Your Loyalty Marketing Channels and Tailor GTM Messaging to Them

Any touchpoint with your brand — your website, social media profiles, in-app messaging, push and SMS notifications, print and digital ads, search engine results, events, videos, podcasts — is a channel for reaching your customers. But each channel creates a different experience. An effective GTM strategy addresses this by tailoring messaging to each channel while maintaining a consistent brand experience.

Having the right consulting partner is a major advantage here. In addition to knowing the nuances of each channel, your loyalty partner can also manage many of these channels for you, including in-app, push, and SMS messaging. This ensures a consistent brand experience across all channels, no matter how varied your channels are.

Take push messaging. You may only have space for a few words, whereas an email conveys much more information. Likewise, your industry may have regulatory and compliance requirements that impact what you can and can’t say in certain formats. Financial services companies, for instance, are scrutinized for technical accuracy (e.g., providing information that could be perceived as financial advice) in addition to their tone (e.g., overpromising results through excitatory language).

Again, test your GTM language with actual customers to find what works best for each channel. For instance, you could show customers an array of GTM assets so they get a sense of the full experience versus just single touchpoints. This approach also helps you find what resonates where — maybe personal narrative storytelling works great for video, while push notifications are most effective when they’re technical and instructive.

Channel marketing case study: Dairy Queen

A strong example to follow: Dairy Queen. To amplify its DQ® Rewards program, Dairy Queen created a unified brand experience that drove a consistent yet personalized experience across all of its digital touchpoints and communication channels. The nexus of all those touchpoints and channels was a new custom loyalty mobile app built upon extensive user testing.

Preview of case study results from Dairy Queen's partnership with WillowTree

Results included 2.1 million new customer loyalty accounts (a 35% increase from the previous year), a 46% increase in conversion rates, and multiple industry rewards such as “Best Loyalty Program” from Newsweek.  

6. Set Your GTM Cadence, Measure Results, and Adjust

Loyalty programs build a loop of positive experiences so customers feel a powerful connection to your brand. Today, loyalty marketers have an advantage for activating and optimizing those loops they didn’t just a few years ago: marketing technology. That could mean a standalone loyalty platform or an integrated tech stack of tools including:

  • customer relationship management (CRM) system such as Braze
  • customer data platform (CDP) such as Adobe Real-Time CDP or Segment
  • loyalty platform such as Punchh, Talon.One, or SessionM

Leveraging advanced MarTech means you can collect customer feedback, conversion, and performance metrics on your GTM strategy straight from launch. With that data, you can act swiftly to capitalize on what’s working and change what isn’t. Maybe you find that loyalty challenge messaging (e.g., “Order three times this week to earn triple points”) drives the most engagement, or that rewards-incentivized referrals drive the most signups.

Now, instead of staying in lockstep with a launch timeline (which is still good to have so milestones are hit and resources stay properly allocated), you can proactively respond to customer behavior as it happens and use it to propel your GTM strategy faster and further.

And forgive yourself in advance for imperfection because mistakes are bound to happen, especially with ambitious projects like globally scaling a financial services loyalty program.

A Digital Consultancy with 10+ Years of Experience Taking Personalized Loyalty Programs to Market

At WillowTree, we help leading brands build, design, and launch world-class loyalty and rewards programs emphasizing exceptional digital experiences. We take a partnership approach that considers everything from your foundational technology infrastructure to lifecycle marketing:

  • Program strategy consulting — We’ll help you identify how your loyalty program design should (or shouldn’t) change to meet your goals and the needs of your loyal customers.
  • Creative and design — Staying on-brand is just the start. We’ll help you determine what design choices will make your new program more accessible and discoverable, then bring it to life with personalized digital experiences.
  • Product delivery — Map the entire loyalty experience, then put the right tools and workflows into place so delighting new and existing customers at key moments becomes clockwork.
  • Digital marketing — Maintain your data-driven loyalty strategy by extracting insights from your transactional and market engagement data. Use those insights to build stories and turn them into retention, re-engagement, and even new product campaigns.

Learn more about WillowTree's approach to loyalty strategy and customer experience consulting.

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