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Forget KPIs: Marketers Are in the Business of Human Communication

It’s clear that a truly customer-centric approach to marketing and brand experience is the future — but how should marketers go about it?

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BY John Hall - 08 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

If you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times: The world of marketing is changing -- but it might not be changing in the ways you're thinking. Marketers and leaders are no longer governed solely by KPIs based on hard numbers alone. As marketing becomes increasingly customer-centric, doing your job well and meeting your goals depends more on how you make your customers feel and the relationships you build with them.

This was a big theme across multiple sessions at the recent FutureM conference, where major brands from all over the world gathered to discuss how to make brands more consumer-focused and aligned with consumers' needs.

The Value of a Customer-Centric Approach

The best way to figure out what your consumers want? Let your ideas come directly from them. Barry Fiske, North America brand experience studio lead at SapientRazorfish, emphasized having a customer-centric approach at each touchpoint: "By constantly seeking to surprise and delight your consumers, you'll create seamlessness across every touchpoint, whether through social channels, online, out-of-home, voice interfaces, or even IoT devices."

Adam Towvim, partner at Chameleon Collective, offered a more personal, human context for brands: "We use customer data platforms to drive personalization and relevancy into the audience relationship, which ultimately humanizes the brand in a way that was never possible before real-time, large-scale data platforms made this possible."

That kind of relevancy and personalization does more than make your customer feel special, though that is helpful for building trust. Amber Joi Seipel, GM of business development at The Trade Desk, argued that it actually makes brands become a "habit" for their consumers.

"Because consumers are becoming increasingly connected to an array of devices and channels, brands are able to deeply integrate their messaging into the context of consumers' daily interests, habits, and lives," Seipel said. "This increased relevancy improves consumer experience and builds a greater affinity for the brand overall."

Ultimately, marketers can't simply look to appease consumers' needs in the moment. Aman Datta, chief strategy officer at Twin Technologies, encouraged marketers to anticipate future desires: "Great innovation comes when you look beyond the immediacy of your customer needs and into what you can do for them after those needs are met."

How to Adopt a Customer-Centric Approach

It's clear that a truly customer-centric approach to marketing and brand experience is the future of marketing -- but how do leaders go about executing it? To help, here are five tactics my team gathered from connecting with leaders at FutureM:

1. Personalize your messaging.

Tailoring each campaign and tactic of your content marketing to each person you're targeting is crucial. One way to accomplish this is to let your consumers decide what content they want and then provide it.

Rather than writing brand guidelines, Laura Henderson, SVP marketing at BuzzFeed, said her team lets consumers decide. In fact, BuzzFeed's infamous Tasty videos were initially made by accident during a brainstorming session around a fruit-peel hack. When their consumers responded so positively to the aerial-view video, BuzzFeed decided to test the same strategy with recipes. The result? Tasty and its accompanying physical products (like the Grill and One-Pan) are a huge hit.

"Look at where audiences are engaging and let your marketing and content follow, rather than trying to determine every single next step," Henderson said. "Your process needs to be flexible."

2. Prepare for the future consumer.

Contrary to popular belief, Millennials are not the me generation; they're the we generation. John Marshall, chief strategy and innovation officer at Lippincott, held a session about how marketers must be ready for the consumer of the future.

This consumer craves access over ownership: As long as she has access to something, she doesn't need to own it. One prominent company that embodies this strategy is Airbnb, which enhances consumer experience by offering access to incredible places as opposed to owning them.

He urged marketers to ask, "If we were able to place ourselves in the home of a consumer 10 years from now, what would we observe about their behaviors, attitudes, expectations, and fears?" As long as tomorrow's consumers value experiences over things, they will favor intangible experiences like trips to Italy over, say, owning luxury cars. Tomorrow's consumer will prioritize experiences over products -- and so should brands.

3. Be more human.

According to David Oksman, head of global strategic communications planning and U.S. activation at Reebok, it's easy for marketers to get caught in the trap of focusing too much on the latest trends and technology when their focus should be on the relationship -- not the KPI.

"All this progress has had the inverse effect on your consumer," Oksman said. "They hunger for authenticity, purpose, and connection. As a brand today, you must authentically nurture your purpose, mission, vision, and values in order to connect with consumers. Start by ensuring your culture matches your brand, and leverage your employees, your consumer advocates and influencers to spread your messages."

Dipanjan Chatterjee of Forrester Research also brought up the idea of emotional intelligence and authenticity in branding, mentioning that too much data makes decision-making more difficult. Forward-thinking marketers should learn to trust and rely on emotion, too.

"AI is unveiling a new landscape for organizations, and in the race to keep up with the pace of change, it's critical to remember that brand affinity cannot be built on technology alone," Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange President Amy Quigley said. "Words, emotions, and visceral connections with customers are vital in maintaining your brand's bond with them. The importance of telling stories, fostering communities and conversations, and appealing to the heart will always remain -- regardless of technological progress."

4. Choose invention over innovation.

David Shing at Oath proposed that the word for 2017 is "experience." Marketing this year has prioritized the consumer experience through the incorporation of wearables and wearable web, built-in intelligence, and virtual reality. He explained that tying sight, sound, and motion into the consumer experience ultimately drives consumer emotion.

So think of how you can deliver your brand's message and purpose in unique, inventive, and culturally relevant ways. Shing suggested that marketers remember the four R's: reactive, relevant, remarkable, and real. Then, add in elements of storytelling and surprise to break through the clutter and build relationships with your audience.

Ultimately, it's important to remember that awareness can't be built overnight: You're in it for the long run, and building an authentic brand that your audience trusts requires discipline and perspective. By implementing a truly customer-centric approach like the industry leaders at FutureM, you can shift your focus away from sheer data and analytics and truly humanize your brand.