Why Marks & Spencer got hyperpersonal to power its Sparks programme

When high-street stalwart M&S wanted to use personalisation to improve the effectiveness of its targeted marketing, Planning-inc devised and implemented a plan to take the retailer's rewards programme to the next level. The work was highly commended in the Targeting Excellence category at Campaign's Marketing New Thinking Awards in 2017, held in association with Sky Media.

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M&S has 33m customers and 86,000 products. How do you build personal relationships with customers with a business of this scale? Planning-inc’s ambition was to create a personalised marketing plan for each customer. Therefore, it developed a best-in-class targeting ecosystem that integrates channels, touchpoints, teams and technology, powering M&S’ Sparks members programme end-to-end.

Powerful targeting algorithms, harnessing billions of rows of customer interaction data to enrich the agency’s data sciences library, enabled it to target more customers with more personalised experiences.

It fostered brand loyalty by introducing local targeting strategies and developing a unique level of omnichannel customer recognition, enabling it to translate "targeting" into "conversations" when in store. The agency targeted reward experiences that surprised and delighted, and found ways to unify and evolve the Sparks journey for digitally savvy and unengaged customers alike.

It did this to deliver on the value exchange that underpins the entire programme: "You give us data and engage with Sparks, we’ll enrich and reward your experience."

The value of Sparks

M&S launched the Sparks member reward programme in October 2015. It aimed to provide an enhanced M&S experience for customers based on their interactions with the brand; one that would increase customer satisfaction, encourage basket size, boost digital interactions and drive footfall in store.

Beyond the binary KPIs that sit behind these objectives, however, Sparks was a vital component in M&S’ strategy to maintain and grow its emotional relevancy among its core customer base. The retailer records 11.2 million store transactions a week, but up until Sparks couldn’t identify and contact most of these customers. The programme was a key enabler in being able to collect and connect data.

Measuring success

The aim was to drive two or more extra trips per year from top customers, have a positive impact on the bottom line and increase emotional loyalty.

The engagement challenge

M&S’ Sparks programme revolves around one core promise: to deliver a personalised relationship and shopping experience with M&S for each member.

From a customer perspective, the membership scheme must provide a tangible correlation between rewards, brand loyalty and data sharing. As for the business, success hinges on its ability to translate a high-profile customer proposition into a world-leading customer targeting infrastructure.

The value proposition clearly resonated with M&S’ audience. Launched in October 2015, registrations for Sparks surpassed 3m members in just three months. 

With millions of discerning customers to keep engaged, M&S was looking to deliver at each stage of the customer journey

By April 2016, the Sparks base stood at more than four million (and growing), and the programme’s targeting ecosystem was set to inject a game-changing level of relevancy into the customer experience management process.

With millions of discerning customers to keep engaged, M&S was looking to deliver at each stage of the customer journey. What’s more, now encompassing a unique database/campaign-management system integration, multichannel broadcast tools, advanced data-science predictive models and scoring algorithms, cross-department planning processes and customer touch-point management, Sparks was set up to engage members on an unprecedented scale.

First things first

How to encourage larger basket sizes, boost digital interactions, and drive footfall in store? From the outset, the programme was underpinned by tailor-made rewards, a sophisticated data and martech infrastructure that allocates and delivers personalised rewards based on customers’ behaviours.

Rewards were updated every two weeks, integrated with the M&S website and tills and communicated to customers through the email channel.

This key facet was turbo-charged in the 2016/17 financial year.

First, the business engineered a sevenfold increase in the offer-pool size, while data was mined to inform which products/brand area should drive the reward pool, based on the highest customer appeal derived from propensity analysis.

Next, the targeting engine and allocation model behind the rewards was thoroughly optimised. M&S’ vast customer web-browse asset was harnessed and put into the engine to increase the accuracy of the propensity models. In parallel, a three-month enhancement project introduced new inputs such as customer-level offer-activation trends, favourite store type and product size to better target rewards. Finally, a further targeting dimension for rewards was introduced in the form of a segmentation that classified customer offer take-up by pricing and promotion.

The result? Personalised rewards continually allocated to the full base, with an unprecedented level of targeting, drawing from an increasingly vast pool of offers. With such massive strides made in developing the targeted approach for offers, the key now was to ensure accessibility to all members, including the digitally unengaged.

The scale of the task

The volume of rewards could be supported only with the most elegant of digital integrations between M&S’ offer engine, customer database, campaign-management toolkit (FastStats), offers platform (Tibco), website and tills.

Planning-inc developed a connected platform that allowed it to personalise 29 million offers a week at a customer level, and linked them to 12,900 tills, 848,000 smartphones, 16 million website screens, 3.8 million direct mails and 378 million emails since launch. This meant that it could wrap relevance into the customer experience, whether that was opening a letter, scanning an email or speaking to a local store colleague. 

In one year, 159 stores hosted more than 450 events for Sparks customers 

To enable access to members’ offers on the move, the M&S mobile app was redesigned to offer a streamlined Sparks journey, seamlessly connecting customers to their rewards.

However, a digital integration counts for little for those not-so-tech-savvy customers. To ease these customers into the Sparks digital world, in store touchscreen order points offered the chance to review their rewards, with colleague on hand to help as required.

Even more important was to find a solution for totally digitally unengaged customers. To this end, it installed the Sparks app on store colleagues’ handheld Honeywell stock-checking devices. This game- changing move enabled in-store Sparks conversations between colleagues and those customers not able to engage digitally. What’s more, a phone line was set up for customers to call and listen to their rewards.

Results show that one-third of members have now used an in-store device. Week in, week out, 170,000 members use a Honeywell, with about 90,000 of those going on to activate one or more offers. Reaching out to ‘less-digital’ customers has resulted in more Sparks members using in-store devices than the app to activate offers. Younger customers tend to prefer using the personal app, while older customers are more inclined to use an in-store device. Expanding offer targeting to be more inclusive has been a contributing factor to improving the Sparks NPS.

Real-time, behaviour-triggered emails were also set up to develop the one-to-one customer conversation. These targeted customers after they purchased, wrote reviews or engaged with Sparks. For example, a suite of 12 inspirational, content-rich daily triggered emails were designed to enhance our customers’ key moments at Christmas.

The results

The effect of the targeting supercharging have been spectacular and has driven impressive annual incremental revenue.

Beyond offer-targeting optimisation, Sparks’ events and experiences and local strategies have significantly increased the programme’s ability to connect customers with their local M&S community. The strategy has helped develop brand loyalty and enabled true conversational marketing with M&S’ best customers.

In one year, 159 stores hosted more than 450 events for Sparks customers. Eligible members are regularly invited to events in their local stores, such as food-tastings, wine-sampling, bra-fitting sessions, happy hours and charity talks, with attendance levels exceeding expectations. Meanwhile, 19 experience days have been attended by 1,400 of the top Sparks points-earners, and 33 prize draws have resulted in 80,000 winners.

The Christmas local email campaign is a great example of nurturing relationships between customers and their favourite local stores (identified by a store-engagement model and drive-time selections). Providing key Christmas information for more than 540 stores and containing a personalised message of thanks from the store manager for the customer’s business, the campaign elicited feedback such as "…it was recognition as an M&S customer, and not just another sale" and "…it made me feel valued".

In short, in 2016/17 the Sparks programme combined a real-time connected technology platform with powerful relevance algorithms and local, hyperpersonalised comms to fully deliver on the scheme’s proposition and drive massive levels of engagement.

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