Marketing in a data-driven world
Debate about left-brain and right-brain thinking in marketing and advertising is not new. Today, however, when all businesses face the challenges of marketing in a data-driven world, the focus of the debate is sharper than ever.
In the paternalistic and advertising-driven era portrayed in the popular TV drama series, Mad Men, the combination of alpha male advertising executives and right-brain creative types was potent. Through clever and often manipulative creative campaigns, corporations could largely control the communication and shape consumer behaviour.
They could appeal to consumers’ emotional impulses, create markets and win over hearts and wallets with relative ease. A colour or a scent here, a flavour or an innuendo there, could trigger consumer behaviour changes on a level that approached social engineering.
Fast food, labour-saving domestic appliances, air travel and personal care products are just a few examples of product categories and markets that developed massively within the global wave of social change in the sixties and seventies. In some cases, it is hard to say to what extent marketing led social change, or vice versa. A bit of both.
Today, things could not look more different. Businesses marketing in a data-driven world need very different skills and capabilities to cut through the clutter, interact with prospects, win customers and retain their loyalty.
Marketing moves at a relentless pace: “@ the Speed of Thought”. Few other areas of business so amply illustrate this inseparability of business and technology that Bill Gates described almost 20 years ago.
To remain relevant and competitive, marketing must analyse, interpret and be agile enough to respond with a personal touch to data drawn from a plethora of sources and interactions.
Consumers today are more sceptical and fickle, and better-informed, than ever before, and business has lost much of its traditional control over the marketing and sales processes. Much of that control is now in the hands of customers and prospects.
Marketing must adapt or be left behind.
What does this mean for businesses in the coming years?
Key capabilities for marketing in a data-driven world
Let’s take a brief look at seven areas of capability and insight needed for marketing in a data-driven world.
1. Solid fundamentals
Fortunately, whatever new imperatives and challenges emerge, some fundamental principles never change.
Among these is a business-wide commitment to the “Three Rs” of marketing: getting the Right Messages out, at the Right Time, in the Right Way.
(Other marketing thinkers have coined different versions of the Three Rs of Marketing, some of which I’ll explore in a future blog article.)
Maintaining a focus on the Three Rs acknowledges that marketing is fundamentally a communication process, and that one size doesn’t fit all.
2. Adapt to the buyer’s journey
The challenge for marketers is to put relevant and timely information in front of people in ways that help them progress on their buyer’s journey.
- The Right Message: Targeting prospects with the Right Message entails understanding where they are on their buyer’s journey from unawareness of your product, service or brand, to readiness to buy.
- The Right Time: Communicating the message at the Right Time requires us to analyse and map the stages through which the prospect progresses on that buyer’s journey. Then we must navigate their route and tailor communications accordingly. Targeting prospects with the wrong message risks confusing the buyer on their journey and backing yourself into a corner. In Monopoly terms, you may never reach “Go” and may not “collect $200” either!
- The Right Way: Getting the message out in the Right Way relies on understanding how and where you can best communicate with the buyer. What do they read, watch or listen to? When, how, and how often? What is their level of comfort with technology? How concerned are they about privacy, and how willing to share information with you?
3. Left-brain and right-brain thinking
Leading marketing and business author and entrepreneur Seth Godin argued, back in 2009, that some marketers are “scientists”, who “test and measure … can understand the analytics and find the truth”, while others are “artists [who] inspire, challenge and connect”.
“We need hats. The hat of the scientist and the hat of the artist. You can only wear one hat at a time…”, he wrote.
I disagree with Godin’s binary assessment of marketers. In hindsight, it seems astonishing that he wrote this a full decade after Bill Gates published Business @ the Speed of Thought.
By comparison, Gates’s description of a “digital nervous system”, whereby information flows throughout businesses, organisations and society in ways that empower decision-making, choices and initiatives, still seems remarkably prescient.
Marketing in a data-driven world needs left-brain and right-brain thinking — not always in equal measure, but certainly with great agility.
Digital marketer Brad Messinger, writing on the American Marketing Association blog, puts it like this:
“If the 20th century was all about the creative, the 21st century is all about the numbers. In order to succeed in this increasingly complex world, it’s crucial that marketers adopt a data-driven approach that perfectly mixes the creative and quantitative sides of marketing.”
This is as true for non-commercial organisations, such as government and non-profits reaching out to stakeholders and donors, as for corporations reaching out to business customers or consumers. It is also as true for service businesses as for product businesses.
“Silo” thinking no longer cuts it. Modern business needs a closely integrated blend of practical skills and thinking styles.
It requires versatile, inquiring minds that embrace data and analytics, words and images, with equal enthusiasm.
In our age of specialisation, this means collaboration skills are more important than ever before, since no single specialisation holds all the answers.
Collaboration in marketing involves more than paying lip-service to the complementary skills of other specialists. Marketing needs, for example, writers, graphic artists and web developers who truly consider and respond to the implications of data-driven decisions, and technical experts who operate less with an “engineer” mindset and more with a passion to be “enablers of communication”.
Marketing needs to think in terms of “unite and conquer”, not “divide and conquer”.
5. Take risks
Avoid the middle of the road. It’s no longer profitable. Be different. Dare to be edgy.
Steve Sammartino, futurist and author of The Great Fragmentation: And Why the Future of All Business is Small, argues in a recent article in Marketing magazine that “the middle ground is melting”. He calls the world in which marketers now operate “Extremistan”.
What once worked – and was safe – in an industrial, mass-production age with burgeoning middle-class consumerism, is no longer effective. Safe is no longer an option.
Arguably, the more “ordinary” (mature, well-understood or commoditised) your product or service, the further from the centre you need to position your marketing.
New, innovative products and services (think: Apple Watch) have an innate ability to be intriguing and to engage consumers’ attention. Though they often tend to be edgy in their marketing, their need to be so is, paradoxically, less.
Passenger aviation, on the other hand, is an example of an industry that once had a similar novelty and mystique, but now (for the most part) belongs firmly in the category of commodity. Little wonder that some of the most successful disruption of that market has come from a larrikin brand such as Virgin. Would they have achieved the same results with a middle-of-the-road approach? Probably not. When it comes to in-flight entertainment screens, it seems that “size does matter”!
6. Focus narrowly to broaden your reach
Whether you are marketing to businesses (B2B) or to consumers (B2C), you need to know your ideal customer and communicate accordingly.
One way to approach this is to develop a customer persona (also sometimes called a buyer persona or customer avatar). This archetypal, fictional customer embodies key traits of your ideal customer or market segment, including demographic information (such as age, education and income) and psychographic information (such as preferences, values and leisure interests).
Refine your customer persona, share it throughout your marketing team, across the whole business, and with agencies and partners. You can even give him or her a name: it’s easier to get people motivated about marketing to “Alice” than to “our 45-year-old, female, middle-income, single-parent market segment”. (Tip: if your customer persona is not gender-specific, choose an androgynous name such as Kelly or Kim!)
Customer personas are an effective way of crystallising the key customer attributes, needs or problems, and the buying behaviours that you must understand and address through your marketing.
You may never choose to talk explicitly about your customer persona in your external marketing communications (though that approach can work too), a persona can help get the whole business, especially the marketing and sales teams, “on the same page”. It can also help prioritise the most valuable campaigns and initiatives in which to invest focus, time and marketing budget.
By refining your customer persona and building your marketing around it, you’ll sharpen your focus, communicate more personally, increase your cut-through and broaden your reach. If you have multiple products or target markets, developing multiple personas will help you establish equally specific focus on each, instead of blurry focus on all.
7. Prioritise customer experience
Customer experience (CX) is a current hot topic in marketing. With customers in the driving seat, their experience of the marketing process can make or break a sale or a business relationship.
Recent research by Green Hat for its B2B Marketing Outlook 2017 study found that 95 per cent of respondents rated CX as a major challenge which would be either a “significant” (68 per cent) or “somewhat significant” (27 per cent) focus of their marketing efforts this year. This places customer experience as marketers’ third-highest priority, after lead generation and lead nurturing.
There’s increasing recognition, too, that B2B marketing is still a process of communicating value to people. Business buyers’ decisions are heavily influenced by their personal experience as consumers. And those business consumers are changing.
With millennials expected to be responsible for 75 per cent of B2B purchasing decisions this year, marketing that fails to take into account the CX preferences of this influential group of decision-makers will struggle to produce the results that the business needs.
All of this highlights the growing importance of customer experience as a vital differentiator through which brands can assert their competitive advantage, in B2B marketing as well as consumer marketing. I’ll delve into the topic of customer experience more deeply in an upcoming blog post.
What’s your list of top capabilities and mindsets for marketers today? Let us know in a comment below.