The Future of Online Is Offline

I find it offensive when marketers call anyone an “online person.” Let’s get this straight: At the end of some not-so-memorable transaction with you, if I opt in for your how-bad-can-it-be email promotions, or worse, neglect to uncheck the pre-checked check-box that says “You will hear from us from time to time” (which could turn into a daily commitment for the rest of my cognitive life, or, until I decide finding that invisible unsubscribe link presented in the font size of a few pixels is a better option than hitting the delete key every day), I get to be an online person to you? How nice.

I find it offensive when marketers call anyone an “online person.” Let’s get this straight: At the end of some not-so-memorable transaction with you, if I opt in for your how-bad-can-it-be email promotions, or worse, neglect to uncheck the pre-checked check-box that says “You will hear from us from time to time” (which could turn into a daily commitment for the rest of my cognitive life, or, until I decide finding that invisible unsubscribe link presented in the font size of a few pixels is a better option than hitting the delete key every day), I get to be an online person to you? How nice.

What if I receive an email offer from you, research the heck out of the product on the Internet, and then show up at a store to have instant gratification? Does that make me an offline person now? Sorry to break your channel-oriented marketing mind, but hey, I am just a guy. I am neither an online person nor an offline person; which, by the way, happens to be a dirty word in some pretentious marketing circles (as in “Eew, you’re in the offline space?!”).

Marketers often forget to recognize that all this “Big Data” stuff (or any size data, for that matter) and channel management tools are just tools to get to people. In the age of Big Data, it shouldn’t be so hard to know “a lot” about a person, and tailor messages and offers for that person. Then why is that I get confusing offers all the time? How is that I receive multiple types of credit card offers from the same bank within weeks? Don’t they know all about my banking details? Don’t they have some all-inclusive central data depository for all that kind of stuff?

The sad and short answer to all this is that it really doesn’t matter if the users of such databases still think only in terms of her division, his channel assignment, and only through to the very next campaign. And such mindsets may even alter the structure of the marketing database, where everything is organized by division, product or channel. That is how one becomes an online person, who might as well be invisible when it comes to his offline activities.

What is the right answer, then? Both database and users of such databases should be “buyer-centric” or “individual-centric” at the core. In a well-designed marketing database, every variable should be a descriptor for the individual, regardless of the data sources or channels through which she happens to have navigated to end up in the database. There, what she has been buying, her typical spending level, her pricing threshold, channels that she uses to listen, channels that she employs to make purchases or to express herself, stores she visited, lapsed time since her last activities by each channel, contact/response history, her demographic profile, etc. should all be nicely lined up as “her” personal record. That is how modern marketing databases should be structured. Just putting various legacy datasets in one place isn’t going to cut it, even if some individual ID is assigned to everyone in every table. Through some fancy Big Data tools, you may be able to store and retrieve records for every transaction for the past 20 years, but such records describe transactions, not people. Again, it’s all about people.

Why should marketing databases be “buyer-centric”? (1) Nobody is one-dimensional, locked into one channel or division of some marketer, and (2) Individualized targeting and messaging can only be actualized through buyer-centric data platforms. Want to use advanced statistical models? You would need individualized structure because the main goal of any model for marketing is to rank “people” in terms of your target’s susceptibility to certain offers or products. If an individual’s information is scattered all over the database, requiring lots of joins and manipulations, then that database simply isn’t model-ready.

Further, when I look into the future, I see the world where one-click checkout is the norm, even in the offline world. The technology to identify ourselves and to make payment will be smaller and more ubiquitous. Today, when we go to a drug store, we need to bring out the membership card, coupons and our credit card to finish the transaction. Why couldn’t that be just one step? If I identify myself with an ID card or with some futuristic device that I would wear such as a phone, glasses or a wristwatch, shouldn’t that be enough to finish the deal and let me out of the store? When that kind of future becomes a reality (in the not-too distant future), will marketers still think and behave within that channel-centric box? Will we even attempt to link what just happened at the store to other activities the person engaged in online or offline? Not if some guy is in charge of that “one” new channel, no matter how fancy that department title would be.

I have been saying this all along, but let me say it again. The future of online is offline. The distinction of such things would be as meaningless as debating if interactive TV of the future should be called a TV or a computer. Is an iPhone a phone or mobile computer? My answer? Who cares? We should be concentrating our efforts on talking to the person who is looking at the device, whether it is through a computer screen, mobile screen or TV screen. That is the first step toward the buyer-centric mindset; that it is and always has been about people, not channel or devices that would come and go. And it is certainly not about some marketing department that may handle just one channel or one product at a time.

The Big Data movement should about the people. The only difference this new wave brings is the amount of data that we need to deal with and the speed in which we need to operate. Soon, marketers should be able to do things in less than a second that used to take three months. Displaying an individually customized real-time offer built with past and present data through fancy statistical model via hologram won’t be just a scene in a science fiction movie (remember the department store scene in “Minority Report”?). And if marketing databases are not built in a buyer-centric structure, someone along the line will waste a lot of time just to understand what the target individual is all about. That could have been OK in the last century, but not in the age of abundant and ubiquitous data.

Author: Stephen H. Yu

Stephen H. Yu is a world-class database marketer. He has a proven track record in comprehensive strategic planning and tactical execution, effectively bridging the gap between the marketing and technology world with a balanced view obtained from more than 30 years of experience in best practices of database marketing. Currently, Yu is president and chief consultant at Willow Data Strategy. Previously, he was the head of analytics and insights at eClerx, and VP, Data Strategy & Analytics at Infogroup. Prior to that, Yu was the founding CTO of I-Behavior Inc., which pioneered the use of SKU-level behavioral data. “As a long-time data player with plenty of battle experiences, I would like to share my thoughts and knowledge that I obtained from being a bridge person between the marketing world and the technology world. In the end, data and analytics are just tools for decision-makers; let’s think about what we should be (or shouldn’t be) doing with them first. And the tools must be wielded properly to meet the goals, so let me share some useful tricks in database design, data refinement process and analytics.” Reach him at stephen.yu@willowdatastrategy.com.

4 thoughts on “The Future of Online Is Offline”

  1. Great article, I love the reference to "the person LOOKING at the iPhone, and YES to the "Minority Report" department store – was Spot On!!

  2. Great perspective, Stephen. I will be speaking about some similar topics during Target Marketing’s online conference in March…we need to keep this dialogue going…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *