Explore our Digital Marketing Strategy and Planning Toolkit

Creating a plan to improve online customer retention

Author's avatar By Simon Swan 19 Apr, 2017
Advanced Advanced topic

Practical customer retention tactics that any business can apply

For any digital marketing strategy or digital communications plan, defining a set of objectives and clear strategy behind your plan is essential to the success. This post focuses on creating an actionable online customer retention plan, which by definition is maintaining or growing your existing customer base loyal to your product offering.

Retention should be at the heart of your digital strategy in maintaining and building communication with your existing customer base. Separate to this post, I’ve also created an outline covering techniques for creating a digital marketing strategy for acquisition.

So, where to start? I advise the same place as for all marketing plans!

  • Know your audience

Before embarking on your retention strategy, understanding your audience is a key requirement to ensure the chosen retention tactics are in line with your existing customer base – so begin to build up a profile of the type of customer/s that interact with your brand.

Retention is about engaging with your existing customer base, so you should already have a wealth of analytical insights on who your customers are, how they interact with your organisation and their purchase patterns.

Key insights to consider when analysing customer data for a retention plan:

  • Search marketing metrics – brand/non-brand search terms, referral sites, bounce rates (based product sections/items)
  • Sales – Average Order Value, Repeat purchase rates, Geographical split (UK, rest of world), Most popular products sold, seasonal sales trends
  • Channels of interaction with your brand – e.g. Affiliate, Social Media, Search (SEM), Email – and impact in driving existing sales revenues i.e.which channel is most profitable for the business
  • Personas – To bring this existing data 'to life', think about creating various personas of who your existing customer is. Types of Personas should be built based on the data you’ve collated such building an age profile, the channel they interact with, level of frequency in visiting your digital platform (website, mobile, app) and frequency of purchase.

Examples of Personas

Persona (definition) helps the rest of your organisation understand the characteristics of customers and helps you to get buy-in from across the organisation – for example, here are a few Persona examples for an online sports retailer:

  • Persona A: Steve is a 28 year old professional who is single and with a high disposable income. He has a keen interest in Football and supports a premiership football team. He likes to display his allegiance to his club by wearing the latest replica shirt as it is launched each new season. Steve is comfortable in ordering online and engaging with social media to keep up to date with the latest football news and football product launches through online forums and partakes in football games e.g. Fantasy Football.
  • Persona B: Clare and Rob are both 34 year old professionals who are married with two children. Both Children partake in Football lessons at school and are both avid Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, each having favourite footballers in Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. They both like to show off to their friends with the latest club replica shirts and ask each year for the new football shirt from their parents.

What are the objectives for your retention strategy?

By bringing together the background and situation of the organisation (Understanding your audience), this content should now provide you with a set of Objectives as to why there is a requirement for a retention plan. To ensure success and buy-in within your business, create your set of retention objectives around the SMART principle, for example:

  • Achieve 25% of existing customers to service their online account within 12 months. This would be defined such as: visiting the site, logging into their online account, making a repeat purchase as a few examples.
  • Drive 30% of existing customers to make a repeat purchase within 6 months through the website

Retention Tactics

Now begin to define how these objectives will be realised – by identifying which digital marketing tactics you plan to use as a retention technique in meeting the objective of the plan. The chosen tactics should be justified from the findings you uncovered in evaluating your existing customer and how they interact with your brand in section 1.

As an example, here are a list of digital techniques tailored for retention with defined retention measurements linked back to the Objectives laid out earlier in this post:

Search Engine Optimisation for retention

Whilst SEO will be mainly be considered as a tactic to drive your acquisition objectives, there are many opportunities to utilise SEO to assist with your retention communications.

  • Personalised search results – Ensuring your brand appears in both head terms and long tail search terms for personalised search results ensures your existing customers continue to interact with your branded content.
  • Google Sitelinks Search Box – with the roll-out of the Google sitelinks search box, this means any branded searches will display an integrated search box on Google, encouraging further searches into your content marketing strategy whilst remaining on the search engine.
  • Create and optimise content for your existing customer base in order for them to service their existing account through a content plan
  • On page optimisation – key on page factors influence on rankings within SERPS so it’s essential the content created has been optimised for visibility within search engines through best practise on page techniques – think about the URL of the page, who the content page is for, heading and image tags,  as well as internal URLs and how would this page be found through the existing site architecture?
  • Product descriptions – Each product on site should include relevant imagery and product information that is unique on site. Ensure the content is tailored to the defined audience from the creation of personas as mentioned in section 1
  • Link building – Pro-actively target websites your existing user-base also use. From analysing your site referrers and most effective affiliate websites, this should provide you with a pool of prospects to launch a link building campaign to drive referrals to your site. Also consider your competitor sites – ensure you’re providing a level of differentiation and ask the question how is my product offering unique and why would a website link to this content over a competitor?

Email tactics for Retention

Creation of email templates – create and test out multiple email templates to your existing customer base and begin to monitor the effectiveness of your emails – look to segment your customer base and see which segment drives the best performance based on your retention measures e.g. repeat purchase

Ensure the right email technology is in place – if you’re using a 3rd party email software provider, does it provide you with the opportunity to create multiple email templates? the right metric reporting?

Ensure email lists are data cleansed before commencing a campaign – have you removed and are up to date with existing customers who wish to be unsubscribed? Have you tested out your email success rate in hitting your customer inbox?

Personalisation: Segmentation of your email audience by product or defined persona group

Social media for Retention

Analyse your current database of Social Media followers/fans

Create an Editorial content plan in place to drive timely content through SM channels – this should be based around the editorial plan mentioned under SEO in defining your content plan

Ensure you’ve provided in-house training for staff to use SM channels in communicating with customers – SM provides a timely and cost effective channel in providing a real-time customer service channel

Affiliate Marketing for Retention

  • Evaluate current program on commission levels offered compared to competitor programs – are any of your competitor programs incentivising affiliates to drive existing customer purchase and if not, could this be an opportunity for your own channel?
  • Analyse trends and performance of your existing affiliate program e.g. what % of sales driven through affiliates are from repeat customers?
  • Segment affiliate sites by performance to date.
  • From your personas, commence a recruitment drive in driving  more affiliate websites to sign up to the  program that relate to your personas

Monitor, manage and measure your performance

With the chosen retention techniques in place, it’s crucial to measure and monitor the effectiveness of each channel throughout the campaign, so consider setting specific KPI’s for each channel. By setting KPI’s, this means each measure can be quantified and used as objectives and provide on-going measurement. The control phase of the report also provides insight into whether the overall objective of the campaign is being met within the set timeframe, e.g. 12 months.  

KPI’s per retention channel

Here are a list of suggested retention measurements that could be considered.


  • No. of Outbound links generated
  • Traffic referral volume
  • SERP position for keywords
  • Pages viewed per visit
  • % of brand & non-brand search terms generated
  • No. of in-bound links generated


  • No of email sent out
  • Segment email lists by existing customers
  • Click through rate to website
  • Open rate of email campaign sent
  • Repeat purchase rate through channel

Social Media

  • No of followers and fans
  • Measure engagement through re-tweets, likes
  • % of referral traffic through to website
  • Volume of content pushed through SM (based on the content plan)

Affiliate Marketing

  • No. of active affiliates
  • Recruitment of new affiliate accounts
  • % of total traffic to website
  • Repeat purchase rate generated through affiliate channel
  • Segmentation of affiliates by level of repeat purchase to the main site

The retention part of the customer lifecycle  is the most profitable, where the greatest level of relationship value is greatest. So take time and ensure you have a defined strategy and tactics in place that listens and builds communication with your existing customer base.

The Smart Insights Online retention planning guide has more detail on structuring and implementing a retention plan.

Author's avatar

By Simon Swan

Recommended Blog Posts