How data is driving the future of marketing

Data informs marketing activity like never before, and that’s a good thing. Even small organizations can tap rich audience demographics and even rich activity insights in ways the most sophisticated outfit could only have dreamed of a generation ago. Real-time campaign customization and programmatic media buying have put automation front and center in both the creative and delivery pipelines.

Is it time to turn the economic engine of marketing over to the algorithms? Or should strategy backed by intuition and experience still rule the day?


Sorting through the data

The volume of available insights can grow faster than a marketing organization’s ability to track and comprehend them. Greg Chambers, president of marketing consultancy Chambers Pivot Industries, recommends focusing in on a smaller set of data for each stage in the sales cycle, rather than trying to apply all insights equally at every stage in the process.

This approach acknowledges that the importance of certain factors, like the original channel a prospect was acquired through, can fade over time and only cloud an already-complex marketing process with noisy data.

“At first, this makes the information harder to act on, but it’s the first step in the learning process,” he says. “As you move on, you can begin to use data to affect outcomes, build models to assist in lead generation, and eventually end up with models that predict sales.”

Data can also be over-emphasized in the social media space. It’s an easy enough trap to stumble into, as both native and third-party social advertising platforms provide tantalizingly rich and (seemingly) individualized insights into preferences, wants, and needs. But a quick glance through a feed full of cajoled likes, retweets, and reluctant shares makes it clear that not all which is posted on social networks represents true insight into personal preferences.

“Social is an exceptionally rich data source, but people post things for lots of reasons, and not all of them belie their true beliefs, feelings, or intentions,” says Kitty Kolding, CEO of marketing data provider Infocore.


Accept no substitute?

Data glut has another potential drawback: the willingness to accept inferior analogs of the data you actually want. Sophisticated modeling and predictive algorithms have marketers thinking in increasingly scientific terms. But, like a chemist mixing a potion, the formula falls apart if you start substituting ingredients by throwing in ten lookalike items instead of the one crucial piece of demographic insight or activity pattern you know to be a significant factor in a buying decision.

“Clients should be very demanding about reaching only those individual consumers who are proven to possess the demographic characteristics, known purchase or trigger behavior, or confirmed purchase intent they’re looking for,” Kolding says.


When data trumps strategy

When you’re selling a commodity, you have two major responsibilities which are seemingly in conflict with one another. The first, long-term goal is to get yourself out of the commodity space as quickly as possible by building a case for differentiation and loyalty. The second, short-term goal is to be as realistic as possible and avoid making costly mistakes your current commodity margins can’t cover.

That means being honest enough to admit when you truly don’t have much to differentiate you from the competition, and competing as efficiently as you can on low price and lower costs. Programmatic buying can help increase exposure at low cost by taking advantage of inefficiencies in media pricing, and reach customers at a moment of acute need. Programmatic buying that presents a prospect with a friction-free path to purchase your (slightly) discounted item can mean the difference between making a sale and never getting a chance to even make an offer to a customer before a competitor intervenes.

“If you’re selling a product that isn’t hard to understand or operate, and the buyer has a $100 budget to stick to and a simple decision process, then you want to make the transaction as easy as possible,” Chambers says.


Where strategy still has sway

In general, the longer the purchase cycle and the greater the budgetary discretion, the more data becomes a vital ally rather than the primary driver of marketing activity. Even a campaign that is heavily automated, retargeted, and built from creative and offers custom-generated in real time has to be built on a thoughtful core premise.

Like any lever marketing might overuse and abuse, reliance on data can be spot-checked by a simple question: is it enhancing, or hindering, the company’s ability to have a relatable and genuine conversation with a potential customer? Or turning an era with so much potential for nuance and laser-precision targeting into a thousand new megaphones?

“The marketing and selling function still need to enlighten the buyer,” Chambers says. “It’s not yet time to let the robots run loose.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.