Way back in the mists of antiquity, when people first began buying and selling goods and services through online channels, a few entrepreneurs got together and realized that it was possible to capture valuable information about how those people behaved in this new, “online” channels. So web logs were born, and ever since then, we’ve witnessed the birth of what has come to be called “digital marketing.” For many companies today, digital marketing is now the channel, instead of a complementary one. Even for the majority who operate through a number of channels and contexts, digital points of customer interaction are so vital now that those who don’t invest in their digital capabilities are quickly sinking into irrelevancy.
If our customers just lived on the internet – or behind their desktops, with our cookies reliably spitting back data – this digital marketing game would’ve been settled long ago. But, of course, they don’t. The remarkable speed with which new mobile devices, digital channels and customer contexts have proliferated is so well-established as to have become a cliché. With this remarkable speed has come an arms race of digital marketing technologies that try to keep up. The myriad of digital marketing products, platforms and vendors out there is a self-evident testament to the bewildering fragmentation of this quickly-evolving market, and the ever-expanding horizon of what’s possible. And we’re no where near the end of the tunnel.
To reach those customers who don’t just live on the internet, the modern marketer must engage in whatever channel(s) their customers prefer. Some of those will be purely digital – your full website, for example. Increasingly, those channels are on a mobile device, and for some customers – my fellow millennials, for example – they are on social media. And for still other companies, the physical “channel” will still be the paramount context for customer conversion (or showrooming). Do you see where this is headed yet? We’ve entered the provenance of omnichannel marketing and customer, not just digital, intelligence.
Customer intelligence isn’t just click data. It’s an omnichannel history of your brand’s interaction with any known customer. Yet omnichannel strategies are easier to articulate than they are to execute. Just speak to the customer with one consistent voice, across any channel, at all times; from what the customer sees in your store, to your mobile app, to your brand’s twitter feed, or full website. It’s that simple… right?
I can understand if this upsets your ulcer. Digital marketing technologies tend to be poorly integrated with cross-channel and traditional efforts at most companies today. This means you’re not collecting or using information about your customer as much as you are about a history of digital interactions. Now, understanding those interactions is valuable. But it’s not real customer intelligence. In the digital marketing arms race, many solutions have ignored the customer behind the screen in lieu of focusing on the digital footprints they leave instead. This misses the bigger vision of customer engagement across all channels – which they get to choose – in which marketers use all of that data in an integrated way. Digital marketing is still incredibly important, of course, but no more so than how the marketing organization links it to their overall customer strategy. For companies that don’t just sell via digital channels, that increasingly means adopting an omnichannel strategy that focuses on their customers as people, instead of collections of digital interactions.
Integrating marketing and customer data across different parts of the marketing organization (can you tell I’m avoiding the word “silos?”) can be a challenge, but the promise is even grander: constructing an omnichannel customer experience that is seamless, consistent and maximizes value at every single customer touchpoint. That can mean customizing product or content display that the customer sees by syndicating customer data to the channel they choose in real time. It means leveraging your full customer data warehouse to deliver customer- and context-specific messaging at the right time and place. At the risk of sounding grandiose, it is the future of marketing itself.
Omnichannel strategies are technological challenges, not exclusively so. Building a customer intelligence competency is also an organizational challenge. This isn’t simply about breaking down silos between marketing groups, but also building new organization around the use and optimization of the data itself. Organizational strategies for the proper structures to support data collection, governance, measurement and use are still in their infancy, but much groundbreaking work is coming from experienced analytics specialists in this area. As time goes on, I expect popular customer intelligence organizational models will emerge that will light the way for us all. In the meantime, maintaining focus on the people we sell to, rather than their digital footprints, is a reminder of the marketer’s mission that will never change.