Stop Your Customers From Going Dark

It seems that marketers have been talking about 1-to-1 marketing forever. But lots of talk doesn't necessarily mean lots of action, and there's little 1-to-1 marketing happening. By contrast there's lots of bulk marketing, without much thought about the relevance of the message, or the impact on customers, who are increasingly intolerant of irrelevant marketing.

There's no doubt that marketing has a big problem. 

A recent study by the AIMA group shows that 69 percent of consumers are "delisting" from marketing communications, while services such as Disconnect.me (now with more than 3 million users) are growing fast. Marketers are (and should be) worried about so many customers going "dark" and disconnecting from their brand.

Ironically, marketers are of course consumers themselves, and personally feel the barrage that marketers inflict on consumers on a daily basis. At a recent conference, I did a show of hands among the marketing audience of anyone who had unsubscribed or blocked any marketing communications in the previous week. No surprise: Marketers are delisting themselves just as fast as everyone else.

Email marketers are acutely aware that their next email could be the one that causes an unsubscribe, where the customer goes dark for good, beyond reach.

Advertising professionals are also aware of the problem, putting in place simple frequency caps when advertisement effectiveness begins to tail off. But in advertising, frequency caps are typically used to manage ROI, not because it impacts the customer experience. For example, retargeted advertising often follows you around the Web for months with marketing that is simply no longer relevant. The longer-term effect of this is significant—the display medium is relegated into irrelevant noise which is automatically ignored, often referred to as "banner blindness."

So why is it that marketers, so aware of the problem both personally and professionally, continue to bombard customers with largely irrelevant marketing? There are three primary reasons:

Product-centric business models. Many businesses are fundamentally product-centred, not customer-centred. The way that new products are conceived, built, and promoted is based on achieving internal quarterly sales goals driving a focus on product-centred marketing. This leads the marketing team to promote specifically what the company needs to sell, not necessarily what the customer needs or wants to buy. Customer-centric marketing is fundamentally different in that it is focused on customer needs and solving customer problems, and in doing so drives revenues and margins for the business.

Bombarding customers is easy, being relevant isn't. Marketing automation tools are at the same time both too easy and too hard. The too-easy part is that it's too simple to send a marketing barrage out to customers and accept that a 2 percent conversion rate on, say, email, is good. What about the impact on the 98 percent that didn't convert? The too-hard part is that many marketers struggle with getting the campaigns out at the rate that the business demands. Think of any number of major retailers sending five or more emails per week in addition to promoting through different marketing channels at the same time. Simply getting this volume of campaigns out effectively every week is a massive task, which often means that the extra effort required to target messages more precisely gets forgotten. Many marketers feel like they are on a treadmill, doing the wrong thing, but while it continues to drive sales, it's hard to stop, because the next campaign is already overdue.

Marketing programs don’t work in a vacuum. Most businesses run marketing as a series of semi-independent channels: with separate teams for email, direct-response advertising, brand, mobile, in-store, call center, and so on. What hope is there for coordination across marketing touch points? Yet CMOs know that marketing has a cumulative impact: Brand advertising will impact responses in other channels; email impacts calls in the call center; and so on. Most marketing case studies look as the positive effects of running coordinated messaging across channels—effectively showing that messages repeated across channels create a multiplier effect. But to really understand these effects, you need also to look to the negative impacts, where in some cases doing more marketing suppresses sales and causes customers to delist. Understanding this means that marketers need to measure cross-channel effects in order to understand the true impact they are having on their customers. Measuring the combinatorial effects of different campaigns is much harder, but is critical because when customers unsubscribe from a brand, they almost always unsubscribe from everything, across all channels.

To tackle these three problems is pressing for most CMOs, and at the heart is the tricky problem of data. Fundamentally, we need to change the way that we think about marketing: Marketing needs to become experience-based. Experience-based marketing puts the customer first, recognising that our brand needs to offer a delightful experience—and that the way that we communicate with customers is fundamentally part of the brand experience.

To achieve this, we have to understand each customer's current context—what they are engaged with at this moment in time—across channels. Without this data, we cannot ever hope to be relevant, and more and more consumers will delist and go dark.

Getting a real-time 360-degree view of customers in one place is the start of nailing some of these persistent problems. It means understanding customers from their first touch as anonymous visitors to their being well-known, through multiple emails, devices, and social and cookie identifiers. This gives a solid data foundation for marketing to measure the impact of what works and, critically, what doesn’t, causing customers to go dark. It also gives marketers the data required to be relevant.

Until we tackle the data issue, customers will check out of our brand communications in increasing numbers. It’s time to start thinking differently about the way we market, by putting customers first, to create genuinely engaging and interesting experiences which captivate customer attention and build the brand.

Charles Nicholls is senior vice president, product strategy, of hybris software and SAP CEC (Customer Engagement & Commerce).

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