As the glitter, excitement, and busyness of BFCM 2018 settles, it’s tempting to settle into the post-holiday lull and simply coast into the start of 2019. However, now is the time to make sure your rewards program is doing everything possible to help you build a sustainable brand community in the new year.

Here are the five most important things you need to do this year to secure stronger customer loyalty from each of your valuable community members.

1. Ramp up referral marketing

If you’ve been here before, you’re probably already familiar with Smile’s community building cycle. Made up of three stages, this cycle helps you understand how customers join, engage with, and share your brand community with others to help increase your store’s retention rate.

Only 29% of satisfied customers actually refer your brand to others, making it a necessary focus for success in 2019.

However, some things are easier said than done. Even though 83% of satisfied customers are willing to refer others to your brand, only 29% actually do. This disconnect causes the sharing stage of your community’s cycle to be the hardest to ramp up and improve, making an effective referral program a requirement in 2019.

The keys to a successful referral program

Luckily, beefing up your referral program doesn’t need to be difficult! On the contrary, there are a number of things you can do right now to make your referral program more effective, including:

Offer valuable rewards to both the sender and the receiver

Encourage customers to share on multiple channels

Create motivating, on-brand referral messages that make it easy to share

Even these small improvements will transform your ability to turn your best brand advocates into your most effective marketers.

2. Increase program engagement with onsite prompts

Your most loyal customers are also the most engaged, making program engagement another key area to focus on in the new year.

The more visible your program is onsite, the more likely your customers will be to engage with it.

The best way to increase program engagement is by making your program both visible and accessible. Too often brands bury their programs on secondary web pages or links, creating an experience that feels like an afterthought. Even worse, poor visibility could lead your customers to feel like you’re trying to hide your program from them, devaluing the community experience you’re trying to build with rewards.

Making your program accessible

There’s an almost unlimited list of ways to make your program more accessible onsite, but here are the three you should definitely be trying this year:

Make your Launcher visible on every page of your store

Add a banner to your homepage that highlights the benefits of joining your program

Build a branded explainer page and link to it in your navigation bar

Each of these strategies are highly effective ways of promoting your rewards program to existing and potential community members. With any of these tactics at play, you increase the chances of everyone who discovers your program wanting to get involved.

3. Improve customer experience with VIP tiers

VIP treatment is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal. That’s why brands like Sephora and Starbucks have such successful reward programs. Social status is one of the most effective motivators for customer behavior, and can easily be incorporated into your loyalty strategy with VIP tiers.

Treat your best customers to a luxury experience

VIP tiers can easily improve a poor customer experience by introducing an element of gamification to the way your program works. With a VIP program, you can offer your most loyal customers additional perks for being engaged members of your community and entice others to get more engaged as a result! That way VIP tiers become the perfect way to connect the join and engage stages of your community.

VIP tiers help you connect different stages of your community cycle to enhance every interaction members have with your brand.

You can also enhance your VIP experience by effectively branding your tier names and introducing experiential rewards. Regardless of how you choose to do it, amplifying your rewards program with VIP tiers is a no-brainer strategy this year (and every year after!).

4. Speak your customers' language

Conversational commerce is becoming increasingly important. As more brands move their marketing strategies to social media platforms and SMS messaging, your customers expect you to make the same strides in every part of your brand experience.

Every interaction customers have with your brand should feel like they're talking to a close friend.

This includes your rewards program, of course, making your program’s tone of voice incredibly important. How you choose to communicate with your members has a huge impact on not only your brand’s reputation but also the way you customers will interact with your community.

Use emojis to make your brand relatable

In an effort to build more emotional relationships with every customer, it’s imperative that your rewards program have the same tone of voice that you’d use with a close friend. This is something you can easily do with emojis. Emojis have quickly become one of the preferred methods for communicating, with 53% of customers stating that emojis are easier to understand than text.

This makes them the perfect addition to your rewards program! Using emojis, you can make your program more accessible and easy to understand in a number of places:

Email communications

Social media

Referral share messages

Explainer page

Customer panel

Emojis in a customer rewards Panel

As one of the most visible pieces of your rewards program, the best place to start using emojis is your Panel  — especially if you’ve started building your community with Smile! From the first moment they open your Panel, you can start showing your customers exactly who you are with words and emojis they can easily understand.

5. Focus on emotional relationships

As we look to the future, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that transactional relationships don’t motivate your customers to engage with your brand or make a purchase. Instead, customers are looking to build emotional connections that prove you understand who they are.

Emotional relationships are the key to long-lasting customer loyalty.

That’s what makes a brand community so important. With a strong brand community powered by a well-design rewards program, you’re able to demonstrate how valuable each of your customers are and build experiences catered to their individual needs.

With this emphasis on emotional relationships at the front of your loyalty strategy, you can use your other program improvements to directly impact how your customers feel about your brand.

By using each of these efforts to work towards a common goal, you set yourself up in 2019 with an unshakeable retention strategy that will turn every customer into a loyal one.