The Empty Promise of Marketing Tech

Marketing technology has, to a large degree, been a big tease.

This claim may seem laughable at first. After all, we’ve been living in the “Big Data” era for almost ten years, and the progress we’ve made in that time has been transformative.[1] But, it is equally true that, in that time, tech companies have made promise after promise that they’ve failed to deliver. Companies such as Accenture, Oracle and Microsoft, have a real knack for implying that all you need to do is plug in one of their “solutions,” and all your marketing problems will be solved.

Yet here we are, in 2017, and the prevailing belief among marketers is that “nobody knows what we’re doing.”

At our Philly Tech Week 2017 event, “Beyond Clicks,” SAP’s Janis Fratamico argued: “We don’t have metrics that necessarily allow us to understand the emotions [that drive] buying decisions … therefore the metrics that we do have don’t always drive us to do the right thing.”

Marketing tech, by its very nature, can only serve up certain pieces of the greater puzzle … but it can’t solve for what we need, which is Actionable Empathy.

(More on that in a bit.)

Then, “Big Data” came along … and with it, the promise of delivering a true “360-degree view” of the customer. By gathering and examining actual real-world customer activity — in a large-scale, comprehensive manner — we’d be able to know why customers make the choices they make, and what we can do to change their minds.

This has yet to come to fruition.

In the pre-digital era, marketers looked to market research and campaign performance reports to help inform their next move. But the available information left you feeling like you were staring at a partially solved puzzle.

Now, without question, the data-driven digital era has transformed the very nature of marketing. But, given this transformation, shouldn’t we be much, much closer to having that true understanding of the customer?content marketing

Yet most of us continue to chase the promise, without realizing it. In the past five years, 42% of marketers have invested significantly in new marketing tech, while 44% of marketers report going through numerous rounds of tech “rip and replace.”[2]

It’s a tease cycle that continually suggests that you are just one upgrade away from getting everything you ever wanted.

Alas, what marketers truly want is attainable … it’s just a little more complicated than plug-and-play software. It’s Actionable Empathy.

So, what is it?

Actionable Empathy is the capacity to recognize and understand the emotions that drive customer behavior, discern between different buying motivations and deterrents (and label them appropriately), and use emotional information to guide marketing strategy in support of business goals.

And it starts with understanding that the key to reaching the customer is hidden inside the customer. Our job, as marketers, is to draw it out … and then use that information to influence the customer going forward.

Good data can get us part of the way there. Each customer insight is like a piece of the aforementioned puzzle. No single insight will do much help on its own; but bring together the right combination of critical pieces, and they begin to form a discernible picture. And that picture is the conduit to true customer understanding.

Rather than thinking of marketing tech as a self-contained solution, it should be seen as the first step in the pursuit of Actionable Empathy. Think of it as a continuum:

Marketers need tCoca-Cola’s Ivan Pollardech that can gather the right data and metrics, so they can derive insights from those metrics, so they can understand the customer, so they can create empathic strategies, which will drive meaningful creativity, which will yield the desired thoughts and behaviors from that customer.
Good marketers know how to speak to their customers. They know how to engineer smart strategies. They know how to extract data from tools. But, what they may not know is how to derive meaning from that data or how to leverage that insight to create marketing strategies and messages that will move their audiences.[3]

The modern marketer’s goal, then, is not to know everything. Nor is it to predict the future, to guess what technologies and platforms will be white-hot six months from now. The goal is to look over the vast ocean of technologies at your disposal, select the right ones to support your marketing and business goals, and have the people in place — internally and externally — who can leverage that tech to get inside customers’ minds, and use that insight to reach them in profound ways.

As Ivan Pollard, recently appointed Global CMO at General Mills, Inc., once said:

“The big consultancies [like Accenture] are underestimating the value of creativity, and the [advertising] agencies are under-exploiting the value of business analytics. Someone’s going to crack that soon because data plus creativity is the future.”

Indeed. Successful marketing in 2017 and beyond will depend on marrying the right tech with smart, creative minds who know how to get the most out of it. In short, and to Mr. Pollard’s point: Data plus creativity equals Actionable Empathy.[4]

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[1] Back in 2008, Randal Bryant, Randy Katz and Edward Lazowska published a paper in which they declared that “Big-data computing is perhaps the biggest innovation in computing in the last decade. We have only begun to see its potential to collect, organize, and process data in all walks of life.” Shortly thereafter, “Big Data” became a corporate buzzword. Everyone started talking about it as the linchpin for next-generation marketing.
[2] Maybe marketing tech just keeps getting better and better, and smart marketers are making wise investments. But, maybe — just maybe — marketers are getting stuck in a tease cycle. “If you just upgrade to Software X, you’ll get all the results you seek.” But X becomes Y, and Y becomes Z, and so on … and, at some point, the cycle starts to feel cultish. (Many marketers would argue that tech, for the most part, is getting only marginally better, and that the smarter investments are made in people — cunning thinkers who can get the most out of the tech you already have.)
[3] Modern customers are rejecting traditional ad messaging in increasing numbers. One of marketing’s biggest challenges is how to provide authentic messages that earn trust, so customers lower their guards and open themselves to consider your brand. For more on this, please see “The Tao of Content Marketing.”
[4] McKinsey & Company just released a report that sought to answer the question of whether creativity has actual economic value. Can one connect the dots between creativity and actual sales? The short answer is: Yes. In this video, McKinsey’s Jason Heller provides highlights from said report, “The Economics of Creativity.”

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