You know that situation where you find yourself in the same meeting with someone you've met several times, but find it too embarrassing to ask their name at this late stage?
For many marketers, digital is that person. It's a mysterious clued-in presence that turns up everywhere, looking cool and monied, but we're just a bit too scared to ask exactly who they are, what they do or to question whether it makes sense. So we pretend we know and treat them with the awe that everyone else seems to.
The truth is, most other marketers don't really understand a lot of what they're on about either. But this hasn't stopped the language of marketing becoming dominated by technical speak as we play the game. Instead of discussing customers and their needs, we now seem to be preoccupied with APIs, use cases, programmatic, MVPs and talk of monetising the data. This isn't the language of relationships. The customer seems to have left the room as we marvel at what we can do to them with the latest kit and algorithms.
Digital undoubtedly has a critical and central role to play in the future of marketing, and can create some exhilarating new ways to understand and interact with customers, but we need to make sure that as marketers we are concentrating on the desired outcome, not the method.
Just as marketers of the past have not been unduly distracted by the mechanics of press production, the technology behind packaging manufacture or the algorithms behind direct marketing, so today's marketers need to focus on what they are trying to achieve rather than paying homage to the undoubtedly clever and cool stuff that's being developed. Many of the developments we are seeing are not satisfying a consumer need, but looking for a consumer need to justify third-round funding. It's still such early days for so much of what is being developed; the marketer has to be the one who says, 'Is this really good for my customers and my brand?' – however neat the technology.
We are only just beginning to see the longer-term reality of a lot of new technology and it's perhaps not quite the wonder it seemed. A lot of recent debate and research has suggested:
- Fitbits don't make you fit.
- Metrics for the success of online advertising are rather unbelievable.
- Ebooks are declining and not as memorable or impactful as hard copies.
- Social media can make individuals dissatisfied with their life.
- The economics of home delivery don't add up – supermarkets make a loss on every trip, Amazon has yet to show a profit and some delivery drivers are modernday slave labour.
- Who is still wearing an Apple Watch or Google Glass?
The always-on nature of the digital world is also creating a short-termism in marketing that is being willingly adopted by so many brands at the expense of long-term relationships and engagement. Most digital advertising and marketing is effectively sales promotion, a push to purchase.
A recent IPA report concluded that: "On average, 47% of a communications budget is now spent on short-term activation strategies, up from 31% in 2014. This latest research provides empirical evidence that our industry is focusing too much on the short term. The pendulum has swung too far in favour of brand activation."
It really is time for the marketing profession to take back control of the consumer agenda and interface. It's time to question the headlong rush into ever-faster, 'more efficient' interactions with customers and consider the longer-term impact that a digital relationship will create. It is interesting that one of the first things Dave Lewis did on taking control at Tesco was to hire lots more staff. Ryanair's fortunes changed when it ditched its belief that only punctuality and price mattered, and started to be nice to customers. As its CEO recently said: "If I had known that being nicer to our customers was going to result in higher load factors, I would have been nicer years ago. No one is going to be nicer to our customers now than me."
It really doesn't matter if you don't understand how the technology works; it's not your role in life. Your job is to be the voice of the customer, the conscience of the brand and to look beyond the short term to the future. At the moment, control of the consumer relationship is being relinquished to techies who are motivated by very different desires and many frankly wouldn't know a consumer if they tripped over one.
It's truly amazing what digital technologies are allowing us to do, but start with what you want the consumer to feel and experience and work back from there. Many years ago, Walt Disney said: "If you can dream it, you can do it." In this age, when technology is making so much possible, your job is to create the dream and then tell others what you want – there are plenty of digital natives who can make it happen. Don't fall into the trap of starting with the technology and working backwards.
This article originally appeared in the Q2 2017 issue of Market Leader.