In an era of unsurpassed technology, tools, and resources, it's nothing short of ironic that business’ ability to connect with customers effectively--and drive the desired level of brand loyalty--is more difficult than ever.
All too frequently, customers wind up on the wrong end of misdirected marketing campaigns, can't get the product information they want in the format they desire, feel ignored or marginalized when something goes wrong, and, eventually, wind up with a tarnished view of a company.
"Customer expectations about what it means to have a meaningful relationship are changing rapidly," said Glen Hartman, global management director for digital information at business and IT consulting firm Accenture, in an interview with CMO.com. "As we wade deeper into digital systems and connection points, consumers expect greater relevance and greater responsiveness. Businesses must understand where a consumer is in the buying cycle at any given moment and how to better address their needs at any point along the way."
Achieving success in this rapidly changing space is easier said than done, of course. Analytics, surveys, social media, and databases with purchase histories and other data are all part of today's marketing picture--and each can play an important role in shaping relationships. But success is more than the sum of tools and technologies. It's also about building a strategy that connects all of the dots. Because consumers have more choices than ever--and many use price comparison apps and other tools to sort through shopping and engage in showrooming--the challenges will continue to mount.
Said Peter Krasilovsky, a vice president at retail consulting firm BIA/Kelsey: "Remarkably, many companies do not take a customer-first approach to marketing and business. The concept, at some point, becomes an abstraction. Strategies don't translate into successful practices."
Can't Get No Satisfaction
Marketers are fully aware that customer relationships are incredibly complex, with a galaxy of touch points in the enterprise and in the marketplace. A growing number of digital and physical channels--including mobile technology and social media--have created new demands and forced marketing executives to cope with fast-changing and extraordinarily challenging conditions.
"What CMOs must keep in mind," said Jason Brewer, co-founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based digital marketing agency Brolik Productions, "is that we’re trying to communicate, garner feedback, and engage our customers to the best of our ability. We're trying to get closer to what they desire."
Sometimes, he told CMO.com, marketers become so preoccupied viewing dashboards and thinking about big-picture items that they "forget that what we're trying to do is communicate, get feedback, and engage customers on an ongoing basis. Every app, tool, or system should make it easier to communicate and learn."
Hartman said that CMOs must move away from campaign-centric thinking and adopt a continuous engagement and marketing model that touches the customer beyond traditional marketing. It's critical to think about marketing far more holistically--and think about data and people in entirely different ways.
But this approach doesn't just happen--even with creative marketing strategies and technology, Hartman said. It requires effective integration of systems and tools, along with new approaches to marketing, sales, service, and more. It necessitates new interaction and transaction models, surveying methods, and incentives. It also requires CMOs to examine operating models, organizational design, and big data and analytics.
The goal, Hartman said, is to "rally around the customer. Businesses must take a granular view of customers and their data in order to understand how to market to them and serve them effectively."
In fact, a more granular approach is the sun around which all the planets orbit. That means a hotel must find ways to differentiate between the same individual traveling for business or on a vacation with the family.
"They may know a lot about me and know all my preferences when I travel alone, but I may have wildly different needs and desires when I'm traveling with my family," Hartman said. It also means that a retailer must differentiate members of the same family who use an account together, and, for example, a streaming music or video service should offer profiles for different users within a family or group--similar to the sub-accounts Netflix has introduced.
Smartphones provide an unsurpassed opportunity for engaging in contextual marketing and relationship building, Krasilovsky said. However, many businesses have so far failed to deliver on the promise. He believes it's necessary to create a more holistic marketing experience by incorporating a loyalty program, targeted messaging, and, when appropriate, payment capabilities. This, in turn, requires big data and analytics capabilities to sort through the stream of data and create the context for messages and offers. It also means plugging in social listening and other structured and unstructured data.
There's also a need to experiment with next-generation technology, including indoor GPS capabilities. For example, Apple's iBeacon uses Bluetooth Low Energy (a.k.a. Bluetooth Smart) to communicate with smartphones and tablets in stores. Once the system identifies a shopper with the app running on iOS or Android, it's able to pinpoint the person's exact location and push messages to the device as well as receive data back. This makes it possible to interact in a more personalized way and send suggestions, even promotions, to shoppers based on what products they're looking at or where they're spending time in the store. It might also allow a shopper to order a product and receive a notification when it is ready for pickup.
Already, more than 150 grocery stores in the U.S. are using iBeacon technology, Macy's has switched on the iBeacon technology in San Francisco and New York, and Apple has installed the technology at more than 250 stores. Major League Baseball is also installing the technology at stadiums, including Dodger Stadium and Pepco Park. Other companies, including Qualcomm Retail Solutions and Estimate, are also pushing into this emerging market.
BIA/Kelsey’s Krasilovsky said that the future of retailing must include more interactivity at the store level, including an ability to pull up product information and in-store maps. Another overlooked area, he said, is online calendaring, which offers benefits far beyond the simple task of automating appointments for a haircut or oil change.
"Once you know someone is coming in, you can pull up their customer profile, know what types of things they've previously purchased, what types of things you can cross-sell or up-sell, offer promotions, and create a far tighter relationship," he said.
Old School, New School
Some companies are taking this new world of business to heart. InventHelp, a Pittsburgh, Penn., firm that works with inventors to get their products to market, advertises on late-night television, satellite radio, and the Web.
"[In the past], we weren't doing anything to gauge our clients and provide them with better service," admitted marketing director Matthew Tagliavia. But during the past few years, InventHelp has turned to responsive design, ratcheted up ad targeting and SEO, and studied data more closely to better understand conversion rates and performance. "We are looking to create as personalized and targeted approach as possible," Tagliavia told CMO.com.
In fact, the firm has devoted growing attention and resources to more closely matching Web and blog content with keywords and tagging, Tagliavia said. With 65 offices across the U.S., it also relies on geotargeting and microsegmenting groups. Finally, it is able to go into its CRM system and study e-mail keywords to better understand who its customers are and what interests they have. This, in turn, drives a marketing loop that helps the company formulate content, products, and services that better fit their needs.
"We're constantly learning and adapting," Tagliavia said.
Brolik Productions' Brewer, whose agency has worked with Comcast, McDonalds, and Alex's Lemonade Stand, said that marketers shouldn't get too caught up in the latest and greatest digital trends at the expense of real-world interaction.
"Some of the best feedback doesn't occur through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest," he pointed out. "Sometimes it comes from simply picking up the phone or stepping into stores and having personal conversations with employees and customers."
The need for traditional conversation channels--and for customers to reach a live person when there's a problem--hasn't gone away. In fact, they're critical to maintaining a strong relationship with a customer. This may also include allowing managers and others at the store level to make decisions and match pricing.
Accenture Interactive's Hartman said that businesses must adopt more of a "test-and-learn" approach to better understand how and where to channel resources. "The initiative doesn't have to be too big and complex," he noted. "The advantage is that it allows you to constantly adapt and make corrections. It's possible to flip things around and try out different things without revamping the entire enterprise. An organization simply optimizes marketing around what works."
One of the best ways to navigate today's rapidly changing environment, he added, is through the use of apps, which often provide a more personalized and targeted approach.
More than anything else, Krasilovsky said, relationship building in the digital age is thinking about how to make things easier and better for customers. While a business can incorporate a spate of tools and technologies, and tap everything from digital promotions and check-ins to indoor GPS, store maps, and personalized recommendations, there's a need to create a sense of value. Hartman said he believes that loyalty and brand value are more than a collection of clever ads and an understanding of social media streams.
"When consumers feel that a company values their business and caters to their needs--and when they believe they're treated well--a closer and better relationship is likely to follow," he said.