How marketers can better find and define their customers

“Who is the customer?”

It was once a revolutionary question. Marketing leaders could chart a successful course for years based on a compelling and pithy answer. But in fast-shifting marketplaces, a stale answer to this question means budgets can be wasted chasing people who are no longer interested in the brand, are already loyal customers, or have radically different needs.

Defining the customer today is not a one-time exercise. In a very real sense, it is a question that must be revisited every day to ensure that resources and messaging are directed in the most effective manner.

“There’s so much more data that can be brought to bear that it’s changing the way the CMO has to think about who the customer is,” says Carla Fitzgerald, CMO of Smith Micro Software. “You can’t have a once-per-year meeting, decide you’re going after millennials this cycle, and spend all year creating cool, hip, and trendy ad campaigns you think millennials will like. You have to be more dynamic.”

Data isn’t everything

Rich customer insights, from purchasing patterns to buyer intent scoring, are valuable resources. Tactically, targeting and retargeting a likely customer with a just-in-time offer is highly effective and worth pursuing. But such data-driven approaches that identify a single customer at the moment of need don’t necessarily help answer the bigger-picture, conceptual question of the ideal customer types to pursue. Even the large-scale segmentation studies possible with today’s data warehouses and third-party data sources are merely snapshots, with limited ability to predict changes as tastes evolve or household configurations change.

“They’re slow and cumbersome and only tell you about how someone is shopping a category at a particular time,” says Rebecca Brooks, co-founder of Alter Agents. “Big Data gives us a lot of information about a person, but still doesn’t talk about motivation.”

One important step is to constantly re-evaluate the prejudices and assumptions which guide your marketing strategy, particularly since it’s faster and easier than ever to test out a new segment. Smith Micro had long focused on a very narrow customer base of the largest mobile network carriers for its network management and mobile analytics software, because they appeared to be the only businesses with a need for sophisticated capabilities in both areas.

Today, a much greater range of companies see the need for high-availability networks and insights into mobile network users. “As a B2B CMO, I have to think much more broadly about who could be my customer, because technology allows me to reach more market segments than I used to,” Fitzgerald says.

Thinking past “average”

Meeting the needs of the average consumer or business was once a safe, stable strategy. But this concept is quickly vanishing under a huge demographic shift. At least 40 percent of the population of one-third of US counties is over the age of 50, and within 15 years there will be 73 million Americans over the age of 65.

“We are at once aging at a very rapid pace, and becoming a multicultural nation. More than one third of consumers in the US are multicultural,” says Terry Soto, CEO of About Marketing Solutions. “The ‘average consumer’ has literally disappeared.”

Instead of making consumers feel average, consider finding ways to define a customer base that will feel like their purchase means more than a simple exchange of money for goods and services. That means aligning your brand with a position or set of social values that consumers can also identify with. “It’s about the brand standing for more than the bottom line,” Brooks says.

The pragmatic upshot is that philanthropy and social justice is now a prominent part of the marketing mix, and key to identifying a core of loyal customers. “You have to have a business model that allows you to target the people that will most connect with your brand,” Brooks says. “And you can turn your customers into advocates and benefit from their use of social media for free publicity and marketing.”

Finally, never become locked into your own assumptions. The most promising batch of customers last week may already have changed their minds about what they want and how they want it. Fitzgerald says, “You have to constantly assess who the best customers are, where you have the best traction, and how to use your campaigns to emphasize your full product portfolio.”

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.