Membership

Reward Members for What They're Already Doing

By / Aug 3, 2016 (evilmutent/Flickr)

A new membership program from comic-book giant Marvel shows earning loyalty may be as simple as rewarding existing behavior.

If you’ve paid even the tiniest amount of attention to popular culture in the past decade, you’ve surely noticed that a lot of people really, really love comic books and superheroes. What was once perhaps looked upon as nerdery is now embraced as mainstream.

And so it stands to reason that comic behemoth Marvel will likely enrich its empire with its new Marvel Insider loyalty rewards program, introduced last month at San Diego Comic-Con. As reported by Fast Company‘s Co.Create, “Points are earned through a variety of engagements with Marvel—from listening to podcasts to checking in at your local comic book shop—and the rewards range from free digital comics to posters and t-shirts to a year’s subscription to the Netflix-style Marvel Unlimited app.”

It’s about getting you to do it more, and to be excited about it, and to connect with us.

The only superhero entertainment I’ve ever made time for was Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and I credit my affinity in that case more to Nolan’s interpretation of the franchise than to Batman in particular, so that’s a long way of saying that I’m not at all a target consumer for the Marvel Insider program. But, nonetheless, I’m always intrigued by the mechanics of loyalty programs, especially ones that use the words “join” and “membership.”

Back in January, I shared some lessons to be drawn from the loyalty program at video-game retailer GameStop. Those themes stand up in examining Marvel’s example as well—tracking customer behavior, personalizing everywhere, and embracing mobile—but the most basic explanation of Marvel’s strategy adds one more crucial factor to the likely success of a loyalty program: rewarding existing patterns of behavior, not new ones.

“That’s at the heart of what this program is. We’re basically rewarding people for stuff they’re already doing when they engage with our brand,” Peter Phillips, Marvel Entertainment’s executive vice president and general manager for interactive and digital distribution, told Co.Create.

This is approaching the level of a golden rule in data-driven marketing: Formulate offers based on what customers are already proven to like, and build on the margins. In other words, if you know what individual customers are doing already, it’s a lot easier to get them to do a little bit more of the same or something similar than to guess wildly at what they might like or to get them to try something entirely different.

“We’re really just incentivizing people to do what they’re already doing,” Phillips said. “It’s about getting you to do it more, and to be excited about it, and to connect with us, because we haven’t really had that connection, so we can make sure that people are registering and providing us some information.”

The utility of behavior tracking that a loyalty program can enable is twofold: Not only can one member’s engagement history indicate what else that person might be interested in, but you can also examine members with similar engagement patterns to make a more educated guess at what that member would like next. For example, if Jane Member likes Benefits A and B, and the association knows that 75 percent of other members who like A and B also like Event C, then it ought to encourage Jane Member to try out Event C, too.

This is, in a nutshell, predictive analytics, and it marries well with a loyalty program, which can serve the dual purpose of incentivizing engagement and making it easier to track. Marvel’s example of rewarding existing patterns of engagement is similar to what we’ve seen associations trying in redesigning their membership packages, either to match members’ focused interests or to identify optional tiers that members will embrace.

My personal experience with loyalty programs fits this pattern, too. The three programs I’ve used most in my life are AMC Stubs, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards, and Giant grocery’s gas rewards. They all rewarded behavior I was already inclined to continue: seeing movies, flying a few trips a year (often to see my parents, who lived where Southwest typically offered the best fares), and buying groceries and gasoline.

Of course, there may be limits to the success of a rewards program in the association membership context, simply because retail consumer behavior is different from professional or organizational membership. Comic book fans and video gamers, for instance, border on rabid in their enthusiasm and passion for those products. Members of trade associations and professional societies do not act so fervently; while their businesses or livelihoods may stand to gain (or lose) through their level of association engagement, their immediate gratification typically does not.

And that’s why it’s useful to understand what makes loyalty programs like Marvel’s tick. An association might not be able to offer members action, suspense, and superpowers, but it can adopt the philosophy of rewarding existing behavior with incentives that will appeal to its niche membership.

How does your association reward members for their engagement? Do you offer a full-fledged loyalty program or points system? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments.

Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. More »

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