Data Will Lead Marketers Into a New World in 2020

What will be so different in this ever-changing world, and how can marketers better prepare ourselves for the new world? Haven’t we been using data for multichannel marketing for a few decades already?

The year 2020 sounds like some futuristic time period in a science fiction novel. At the dawn of this funny sounding year, maybe it’s good time to think about where all these data and technologies will lead us. If not for the entire human collective in this short article, but at the minimum, for us marketers.

What will be so different in this ever-changing world, and how can marketers better prepare ourselves for the new world? Haven’t we been using data for multichannel marketing for a few decades already?

Every Channel Is, or Will Be Interactive 

Multichannel marketing is not a new concept, and many have been saying that every channel will become interactive medium. Then I wonder why many marketers are still acting like every channel is just another broadcasting medium for “them.” Do you really believe that marketers are still in control? That marketers can just push their agenda, the same old ways, through every channel? Uniformly? “Yeah! We are putting out this new product, so come and see!” That is so last century.

For instance, an app is not more real estate where you just hang your banners and wait for someone to click. By definition, a mobile app is an interactive medium, where information goes back and forth. And that changes the nature of the communication from “We talk, they listen” to “We listen first, and then we talk based on what we just heard.”

Traditional media will go through similar changes. Even the billboards on streets, in the future, will be customized based on who’s seeing it. Young people don’t watch TV in the old-fashioned way, mindlessly flipping through channels like their parents. They will actively seek out content that suites “them,” not the other way around. And in such an interactive world, the consumers of the content have all the power. They will mercilessly stop, cut out, opt out, and reject anything that is even remotely boring to “them.”

Marketers are not in charge of communication anymore. They say an average human being looks at six to seven different screens every day. And with wearable devices and advancement in mobile technologies, even the dashboard on a car will stop being just a dumb dashboard. What should marketers do then? Just create another marketing department called “wearable division,” like they created the “email marketing” division?

The sooner marketers realize that they are not in charge, but the consumers are, the better off they would be. Because with that realization, they will cease to conduct channel marketing the way they used to do, with extremely channel-centric mindsets.

When the consumers are in charge, we must think differently. Everything must be customer-centric, not channel- or division-centric. Know that we can be cut off from any customer anytime through any channel, if we are more about us than about them.

Every Interaction Will Be Data-based, and in Real-time

Interactive media leave ample amounts of data behind every interaction. How do you think this word “Big Data” came about? Every breath we take and every move we make turn into piles of data somewhere. That much is not new.

What is new is that our ability to process and dissect such ample amounts of data is getting better and faster, at an alarming rate. So fast that we don’t even say words like Big Data anymore.

In this interactive world, marketers must listen first, and then react. That listening part is what we casually call data-mining, done by humans and machines, alike. Without ploughing through data, how will we even know what the conversation is about?

Then the second keyword in the subheading is “real-time.” Not only do we have to read our customers’ behavior through breadcrumbs they leave behind (i.e., their behavioral data), we must do it incredibly fast, so that our responses seem spontaneous. As in “Oh, you’re looking for a set of new noise-canceling earbuds! Here are the ones that you should consider,” all in real-time.

Remember the rule No. 1 that customers can cut us out anytime. We may have less than a second before they move on.

Marketers Must Stay Relevant to Cut Through the Noise

Consumers are bored to tears with almost all marketing messages. There are too many of them, and most aren’t about the readers, but the pushers. Again, it should be all about the consumers, not the sellers.

It stops being entirely boring when the message is about them though. Everybody is all about themselves, really. If you receive a group photo that includes you, whose face would you check out first? Of course, your own, as in “Hmm, let me see how I look here.”

That is the fundamental reason why personalization works. But only if it’s done right.

Consumers can smell fake intimacy from miles away. Young people are particularly good at that. They think that the grownups don’t understand social media at all for that reason. They just hate it when someone crashes a party to hard-sell something. Personalization is about knowing your targets’ affinities and suggesting — not pushing — something that may suite “them.” A gentle nudge, but not a hard sell.

With ample amounts of data all around, it may be very tempting to show how much we know about the customers. But never cross that line of creepiness. Marketers must be relevant to stay connected, but not overly so. It is a fine balance that we must maintain to not be ignored or rejected.

Machine Learning and AI Will Lead to Automation on All Fronts

To stay relevant at all times, using all of the data that we have is a lot of work. Tasks that used to take months — from data collection and refinement to model-based targeting and messaging — should be done in minutes, if not seconds. Such a feat isn’t possible without automation. On that front, things that were not imaginable only a few years ago are possible through advancement in machine learning or AI, in general.

One important note for marketers who may not necessarily be machine learning specialists is that what the machines are supposed to do is still up to the marketers, not the machines. Always set the goals first, have a few practice rounds in more conventional ways, and then get on a full automation mode. Otherwise, you may end up automating wrong practices. You definitely don’t want that. And, more importantly, target consumers would hate that. Remember, they hate fake intimacy, and more so if they smell cold algorithms in play along the way.

Huge Difference Between Advanced Users and Those Who Are Falling Behind

In the past, many marketers considered data and analytics as optional items, as in “Sure, they sound interesting, and we’ll get around to it when we have more time to think about it.” Such attitudes may put you out of business, when giants like Amazon are eating up the world with every bit of computing power they have (not that they do personalization in an exemplary way all of the time).

If you have lines of products that consumers line up to buy, well, all the more power to you. And, by all means, don’t worry about pampering them proactively with data. But if you don’t see lines around the block, you are in a business that needs to attract new customers and retain existing customers more effectively. And such work is not something that you can just catch up on in a few months. So get your data and targeting strategy set up right away. I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions, but this month being January and all, you might as well call it that.

Are You Ready for the New World?

In the end, it is all about your target customers, not you. Through data, you have all the ammunition that you need to understand them and pamper them accordingly. In this age, marketers must stay relevant with their targets through proper personalization at all stages of the customer journey. It may sound daunting, but all of the technologies and techniques are ripe for such advanced personalization. It really is about your commitment — not anything else.

Building Customer-Centric, Trust-Based Relationships

More than a buzzword, “being human,” especially in brand-building and leveraging customer relationships, has become a buzz-phrase or buzz-concept. But, there is little that is new or trailblazing in this idea. To understand customers, the enterprise needs to think in human, emotional terms. To make the brand or company more attractive, and have more impact on customer decision-making, there must be an emphasis on creating more perceived value and more personalization. Much of this is, culturally, operationally, and from a communications perspective, what we have been describing as “inside-out advocacy” for years.

More than a buzzword, “being human,” especially in brand-building and leveraging customer relationships, has become a buzz-phrase or buzz-concept. But, there is little that is new or trailblazing in this idea. To understand customers, the enterprise needs to think in human, emotional terms. To make the brand or company more attractive, and have more impact on customer decision-making, there must be an emphasis on creating more perceived value and more personalization. Much of this is, culturally, operationally, and from a communications perspective, what we have been describing as “inside-out advocacy” for years.

Most brands and corporations get by on transactional approaches to customer relationships. These might include customer service speed, occasional price promotions, merchandising gimmicks, new product offerings, and the like. In most instances, the customers see no brand “personality” or brand-to-brand differentiation, and their experience of the brand is one-dimensional, easily capable of replacement. Moreover, the customer has no personal investment in choosing, and staying with, one brand or supplier over another.

A key opportunity for companies to become stronger and more viable to customers is creation of branded experiences. Beyond simply selling a product or service, these “experiential brands” connect with their customers. They understand that delivering on the tangible and functional elements of value are just tablestakes, and that connecting and having an emotionally based relationship with customers is the key to leveraging loyalty and advocacy behavior.

These companies are also invariably quite disciplined. Every aspect of a company’s offering—customer service, advertising, packaging, billing, products, etc.—are all thought out for consistency. They market, and create experiences, within the branded vision. IKEA might get away with selling super-expensive furniture, but it doesn’t. Starbucks might make more money selling Pepsi, but it doesn’t. Every function that delivers experience is “closed-loop,” carefully maintaining balance between customer expectations and what is actually executed.

In his 2010 book, “Marketing 3.0: From Products to Customers to the Human Spirit,” noted marketing scholar Philip Kotler recognized that the new model for organizations was to treat customers not as mere consumers, but as the complex, multi-dimensional human beings they are. Customers, in turn, have been choosing companies and products that satisfy deeper needs for participation, creativity, community and idealism.

This sea change is why, according to Kotler, the future of marketing lies in creating products, services and company cultures that inspire, include and reflect the values of target customers. It also meant that every transaction and touchpoint interaction, and the long-term relationship, needed to carry the organization’s unique stamp, a reflection of the perceived value represented to the customer.

Kotler picked up a theme that was articulated in the 2007 book, “Firms of Endearment.” Authors Jagdish N. Sheth, Rajendra S. Sisodia and David B. Wolfe called such organizations “humanistic” companies, i.e. those which seek to maximize their value to each group of stakeholders, not just to shareholders. As they state, right up front (Chapter 1, Page 4):

“What we call a humanistic company is run in such a way that its stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, business partners, society, and many investors—develop an emotional connection with it, an affectionate regard not unlike the way many people feel about their favorite sports teams. Humanistic companies—or firms of endearment (FoEs)—seek to maximize their value to society as a whole, not just to their shareholders. They are the ultimate value creators: They create emotional value, experiential value, social value, and, of course, financial value. People who interact with such companies feel safe, secure, and pleased in their dealings. They enjoy working with or for the company, buying from it, investing in it, and having it as a neighbor.”

For these authors, a truly great company is one that makes the world a better place because it exists. It’s as simple as that. In the book, they have identified about 30 companies, from multiple industries, that met their criteria. They included CarMax, BMW, Costco, Harley-Davidson, IKEA, JetBlue, Johnson & Johnson, New Balance, Patagonia, Timberland, Trader Joe’s, UPS, Wegmans and Southwest Airlines. Had the book been written a bit later, it’s likely that Zappos would have made their list, as well.

The authors compared financial performance of their selections with the 11 public companies identified by Jim Collins in “Good to Great” as superior in terms of investor return over an extended period of time. Here’s what they learned:

  • Over a 10-year horizon, their selected companies outperformed the “Good to Greatcompanies by 1,028 percent to 331 percent (a 3.1 to 1 ratio)
  • Over five years, their selected companies outperformed the “Good to Great companies by 128 percent to 77 percent (a 1.7 to 1 ratio)

Just on the basis of comparison to the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, the public companies singled out by “Firms of Endearment” returned 1,026 percent for investors during the 10 years ending June 30, 2006, compared to 122 percent for the S&P 500—more than an 8 to 1 ratio. Over 5 years, it was even higher—128 percent compared to 13 percent, about a 10 to 1 ratio. Bottom line: Being human is good for the balance sheet, as well as the stakeholders.

Exemplars of branded customer experience also understand that there is a “journey” for customers in relationships with preferred companies. It begins with awareness, how the brand is introduced, i.e. the promise. Then, promise and created expectations must at least equal—and, ideally, exceed—real-world touchpoint results (such as through service), initially and sustained over time, with a minimum of disappointment.

As noted, there is a strong recognition that customer service is especially important in the branded experience. Service is one of the few times that companies will directly interact with their customers. This interaction helps the company understand customers’ needs while, at the same time, shaping customers’ overall perception of the company and influencing both downstream communication and future purchase.

And, branding the customer experience requires that the brand’s image, its personality if you will, is sustained and reinforced in communications and in every point of contact. Advanced companies map and plan this out, recognizing that experiences are actually a form of branding architecture, brought to life through excellent engineering. Companies need to focus on the touchpoints which are most influential.

Also, how much influence do your employees have on customer value perceptions and loyalty behavior through their day-to-day interactions? All employees, whether they are customer-facing or not, are the key common denominator in delivering optimized branded customer experiences. Making the experience for customers positive and attractive at each point where the company interacts with them requires an in-depth understanding of both customer needs and what the company currently does to achieve that goal, particularly through the employees. That means companies must fully comprehend, and leverage, the impact employees have on customer behavior.

So, is your company “human”? Does it understand customers and their individual journeys? Are customer experiences “human” and branded? Is communication, and are marketing efforts, micro-segmented and even personalized? Does the company create emotional, trust-based connections and relationships with customers? If the answer to these questions is “YES,” then “being human” becomes a reality, the value of which has been recognized for some time, and not merely as a buzz-concept.

How to Convert LinkedIn Contacts into Qualified Leads

Answering your customers’ most commonly asked questions opens the door for discovery … and for brands to make relevant suggestions. You can offer prospects a friendly tip or useful trick or, if appropriate, outline benefits of taking a trial, downloading a whitepaper or attending your webinar.

Turning LinkedIn contacts or LinkedIn Group members into leads rarely happens using what I call passive engagement. It takes something more than occupying prospects’ time. You’ve got to convince them to sign up for your webinar or download your whitepaper.

Luckily, converting LinkedIn contacts to leads is easy. Just start by solving your target market’s problems in ways they find irresistible. Then plan engagement—carefully map it out to connect your target customers’ questions to the answers your content marketing devices (webinars, whitepaper) deliver.

The Engagement Myth
If you’re like most B-to-B marketers, you’re struggling to turn LinkedIn contacts and group members into leads. But getting it done is easier than you think. After a year of interviewing B-to-B and business to consumer businesses experiencing remarkable success using social media I found the common success principle: Ditching passive engagement—and giving contacts, friends, followers and such a reason to offer more than a “like” or merely consume content.

Many LinkedIn gurus claim awareness, reach and influence leads to conversion. They say, “regular online participation in LinkedIn Groups and with followers on other social platforms can convert them from followers into leads and on to customers.”

Yes, it can but this belief isn’t much different than the “reach and frequency” promise of advertising. Namely, if we beat the drum loud enough (reach) and often enough (frequency) it will cause people to perform an action—register, attend, download. As Dr. Phil likes to say, “and how’s that working for ya?” This is what I call passive engagement.

But there is a better way: Designing engagement to produce actions by solving customers’ problems in places where questions often get asked—like LinkedIn Groups.

Solve Customers’ Problems
You’ve probably heard that posting a certain number of times, on certain subjects, on certain days inside LinkedIn Groups where your target market congregates is the key that unlocks success with LinkedIn. Or maybe you’ve heard that frequent posting of blogs you’ve written in LinkedIn Groups will generate leads. These ideas don’t work. The key to success is solving customers’ problems in provocative ways.

For instance, use LinkedIn to generate questions among customers that your webinar or whitepaper gives answers to. Creatively bait customers to communicate or complain about problems (in LinkedIn Groups) that your content marketing device provides solutions for. Next, provoke actions—exploit those complaints by enticing, “ethically bribing” prospects to register for a webinar, download or perform an action that helps you qualify them as leads. It’s a snap.

Scratch Customers’ Itches in LinkedIn Groups
For instance, grocery store Harris-Teeter pays customers to ask its dietician health-related questions on Facebook. Why would a grocer—or you—do that? Because helping customers put out a fire or scratch a bothersome itch is powerful. It can be done on any social platform where your target audience is engaging, like LinkedIn.

Answering your customers’ most commonly asked questions opens the door for discovery … and for brands to make relevant suggestions. You can offer prospects a friendly tip or useful trick or, if appropriate, outline benefits of taking a trial, downloading a whitepaper or attending your webinar.

Always beware: leads don’t “just happen” passively using LinkedIn. You need to solve problems with a plan in mind. That said, using a question-and-answer technique takes much of the work out of the process. It can even be fun. What do you think about giving this a try?

Showdown of the Holiday Gadget Wish List: Man vs. Marketer

The holiday shopping season is in full swing, and it’s make-or-break time for the hottest category this time of year — consumer electronics. As always, there will be no shortage of choices. Store aisles will be jam-packed with bright, shiny contenders, all competing for a place in your shopping cart.

The holiday shopping season is in full swing, and it’s make-or-break time for the hottest category this time of year — consumer electronics. As always, there will be no shortage of choices. Store aisles will be jam-packed with bright, shiny contenders, all competing for a place in your shopping cart.

I decided to field a survey to find out which gadgets will earn a much-coveted spot in all those stockings hung by the chimney with care. To put a twist on things, I wanted to compare the responses of average consumers versus marketing professionals. Survey respondents included 100 consumers randomly selected from a survey panel and 100 traditional and digital marketing peers.

Most coveted gadgets: the winners
Want to know what to get your favorite marketer this year? The iPad was the hands-down winner among marketers, chosen by one in five respondents. But the iPad isn’t getting the same amount of consumer love — it ranked seventh in a list of 10 items we asked about, with only 8 percent of consumers including it on their wish lists.

What’s on top of consumers’ lists? Flat-screen TVs rule. Maybe those savvy consumers smell a deal? Last year wasn’t a banner year for TV sales, and the inventory glut is leading to heavy price reductions. According to CNN, the average price for a 32-inch LCD TV is just $374. Quite the bargain when compared inch-for-inch against the 9.7-inch iPad screen.

Life beyond Android and iPhone: the surprises
With all the talk about convergence devices that do it all, I didn’t expect to see a decidedly old-school, not-so-one-stop-shop entry in the top three of both the consumer and marketer list — digital cameras. It’s a reminder that there’s still a lot of demand for specialized, single-use devices.

When it comes to mobile, the iPhone was the most mentioned smartphone for both marketers and consumers, fueled by its heavily anticipated arrival at Verizon. Android phones were rock bottom on the list among nonmarketers, with a mere 2 percent hoping for one this holiday. Smartphones (non-Android or iPhone) made a surprisingly strong showing among consumers, tying for third place with the iPhone. In the iPhone- and Android-obsessed world of marketers, it’s easy to forget that there’s a lot of other options out there.

We’re not our target customers: the not so surprising
Over 90 percent of the marketers surveyed labeled one or more of the items they were asked about as a must-have for their holiday wish lists. One in 10 even included additional candidates, including GoogleTV, Xbox with Kinect, Roku and the latest iPod. But the average consumer is definitely less smitten by gizmos and gadgets — over 50 percent said none of the items we asked about will make it onto their holiday wish lists.

The reluctance among consumers to indulge in pricey electronic goodies is consistent with the grim predictions of 2010 holiday spending, such as the recent finding from the NPD Group that “consumers who were considering just cutting back on [consumer electronics] purchases are now not planning to buy anything at all.”

Holiday 2010: the takeaways
While 2011 is shaping up to be the year the iPhone hits mass adoption, there are a lot of other smartphone choices out there. This doesn’t make things any easier for app-slinging marketers, who will have to prioritize the platforms they want to serve.

iPad envy aside, there’s a lot in common between marketers and consumers. For now, most of us are favoring the familiar over the newer-to-market indulgences. Emerging technologies such as 3-D TVs, tablets and e-readers may dominate headlines, but it’s the established devices such as digital cameras and flat-screen TVs that will continue to capture wallet share this holiday season.

As for my list, I’m hoping to get something (or someone) to help carry around all the gadgets I already own. What’s on your wish list?