Exclusive Upromise Interview About TurboSaver and More

November 2, 2009 · 0 comments

Two weeks ago, I posted about my frustration with Upromise’s TurboSaver toolbar, a cashback reminder tool that I was prodded to install twice in one visit when all I wanted to do was get the name and rate for their daily double cashback merchant. Soon after, I was contacted by their Director of Public Relations, Debby Hohler, who set up a phone call to discuss the company’s marketing tactics and strategy. Also attending the call was David Coppins, Senior VP of Upromise, responsible for the company’s online shopping site. Both Debby and David were forthright and honest (I felt) in their responses to my concerns, and in our 45 minute call, they graciously and patiently answered many questions I had beyond the original scope of our call. Here are some of the highlights:

First of all, David bluntly acknowledged the validity of my complaint about my experience two weeks ago that I had been “badgered” to install the TurboSaver toolbar. It was “pretty accurate…and I think we deserved it and we have fixed it,” he said. The site was supposed to ask all members one time if they wanted to install the toolbar. Members who hadn’t visited the site in a while were supposed to get one prompt to install it. No one was supposed to get “hit up” twice within a single login, and as a result of my complaint, Upromise’s tech team was dispatched to investigate the problem and correct it.

The benefit of TurboSaver, David said, was to “engage the member and make it easier to save money through Upromise.” He insisted that the toolbar did NOT swipe commission from other affiliates (such as competing cashback rewards programs). Technically, the toolbar looks for HTML code that includes “afsrc” within the link, or a recognizable affiliate link. When the toolbar detects it, it knows the member is on another affiliate website, it turns grey, and it offers no interaction with the member. When asked point-blank if TurboSaver “steals” commission from other affiliates, David firmly stated, “Absolutely not.”

He went on to qualify that he had heard of “a few fringe cases” where Upromise was credited for a sale in error due to the toolbar, but he said that they amounted to maybe 1/1000th of a percent of total sales. In every case we take it seriously and investigate thoroughly, he said. When I told him that I had heard of other cases, he asked that I contact him in the future with specifics so Upromise’s tech team could try to duplicate the incident and correct it.

What about the concerns I had regarding TurboSaver’s intrusiveness? David said that when a member installs the software, he’s given a checkbox to choose whether or not to receive special offers tailored to him specifically based on his internet activities. I was surprised to hear that only about half of those prompted decide to opt out of this function.

If you do opt in, the toolbar does a couple of things. First, when you use a search engine, it overlays your search results with an icon to indicate whether a merchant participates in Upromise. Second, it monitors trends in the websites that you visit and the searches that you make, and two to three similar interactions will trigger a “slider” to pop up on the bottom right of the toolbar to ask if the member is aware that Upromise can help them with this subject. For instance, a visit to Bankrate.com and then a search for “mortgage” will trigger a slider asking the member if he’s aware that Upromise has information on mortgage loans, with a link to take him there. At any one time there are only two or three campaigns running, David said. Another campaign currently running is about coupons — after several activities like visiting a well-known coupon site and doing a Google search for coupons, the slider will appear from the toolbar saying that Upromise also offers coupons.

There are plans in the works to extend the capabilities of Upromise TurboSaver. The next planned rollout is related to restaurants. As members search for restaurants or restaurant reviews, TurboSaver will overlay the results to indicate whether the restaurant participates in Upromise’s offline dining rewards program. The next phase will be adding in local B&M merchants (gas stations, local retailers, etc.).

We got off the subject of the toolbar and went on to talk about other things Upromise was doing to help meet their members’ needs.

Upromise’s coupon section has been expanded recently from a manual process to a more comprehensive automated one. The program has also reached out to members using social media including their community forum and blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Debby said that without advertising, Upromise’s Facebook fan page membership grew from 1,500 in May to its current 17,000 level. She attributed this growth to members sharing content posted by Upromise including deals, news articles, and informational content on saving money. Twitter is also being used to share money-saving stories, tips on how to better use Upromise, and also to address customer service concerns. The departments of Marketing, PR, and Customer Service all participate to some extent in Upromise’s social media interactions. One of Debby’s responsibilities is to monitor what’s being said about Upromise for feedback and insights from bloggers, customers, and traditional media to share with people across the company to learn from.

What about the competition, I asked. David said that Upromise didn’t really consider other online cashback sites to be competition since due to the breadth of Upromise’s operations, which extend offline as well (including the dining program, the Upromise credit card, and the increasingly popular eCoupon business). He said that upper management in Upromise, Ebates, FatWallet, iGive, and other programs are all friendly and some talk as often as once a month to discuss industry trends. He said that he had met, and was impressed by, the owners of Extrabux and felt that they had a great, low-cost model which allowed them to give away a greater portion of their commission to members.

This prompted me to ask whether Upromise, as a large corporate entity, was helped or hindered by their size. On the one hand, you’d expect that having a larger membership would equate with greater bargaining power to negotiate higher commission rates from merchants (meaning higher cashback for shoppers). But on the flip side, a bigger company means more overhead. David said that in general, the company gives members half of what they earn in commission although on some merchants, such as flowers, Upromise keeps less.

He acknowledged that other, smaller cashback programs have had great success in negotiating higher commissions with some merchants and said that he had been surprised to see just how successful, as he reviewed the results of my annual shopping rate comparison. The site does its own internal comparison, David said, but not across as many programs as I do. He hinted that there may be some changes coming soon to improve some of Upromise’s rates.

One fault that he found with my annual analysis is the fact that it focuses on the merchants for which most cashback sites offer rewards. Upromise is unique in that they have relationships — sometimes exclusive ones — with some retailers that are more selective with their rewards partners. He cited Upromise’s relationships with J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, Crate & Barrel, and American Girl as examples.

As I said, it was a very informational phone call. :)

In reviewing my notes, there were a couple of major take-aways from the call for me.

First, TurboSaver is even more intrusive than I thought if members don’t opt out of the behavioral targeting. This is genius from Upromise’s perspective but from an ethical standpoint, the overlays and slider prompts still seem like unfair competition. And I think the benefit to the consumer is outweighed by the amount of privacy he has to give up just to get shopping credit on those rare occasions he forgets to start shopping through Upromise’s portal.

Second, I’m skeptical that there are so few cases of TurboSaver swiping commission from other affiliates. It’s impossible to know how often it happens because non-cashback affiliates have no way of tracking it. If I’m a member of another rewards program (like MyPoints) and I don’t get credit for my order, then I can complain to customer service, who will submit an inquiry to the affiliate manager, who can use my order number to track down where my commission (cashback) went. But if I have a Target link on my site, for example, and you say, “Wow, Becky’s got such great information on her site, I think I’ll shop through her link to kick her back a few cents instead of going through Upromise,” how would I know if the toolbar took credit for the sale? I didn’t know I was getting a sale to begin with! And even if the member noticed, “Oh, I got cashback for that Target order from Upromise,” would they realize that meant that Becky didn’t get paid? And would they take the time to report it? And would Upromise customer service even look into it if they did?

Last of all, the impression I got from this call is that Upromise is a program that is very customer service-oriented and really has a handle on not only monitoring public perception of their company and product features, but also proactively addressing concerns to improve their service. The buzzword for that a decade ago was CQI, continuous quality improvement.

Upromise took immediate action to limit the number of prompts for the TurboSaver download in response to my complaint, which wasn’t even a complaint voiced on their own website to their customer service staff. They were open with their answers to all of my questions about their service and their business practices, and both David and Debby left me with their full contact information including email addresses and direct phone numbers, encouraging me to contact them if I had future concerns. They even offered to provide a spreadsheet of their ongoing shopping rates to assist with my annual cashback comparison this year and agreed to attend, or send a representative to, my annual chat on November 7th.

So, while I stand by my assertion that the TurboSaver toolbar is to be avoided, I do think the Upromise program (including the shopping portal) offers a wide range of useful features, and I will continue to recommend the site to online shoppers. If you’re not a Upromise member and you’d like to check out the program, you can help support CompareRewards by joining with my link — thanks!

And thanks to Debby Hohler and David Coppins for their time and for all of the information they were willing to share with me and my readers!

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