It was an Emperor’s New Clothes moment in marketing class. “If marketers are spending unprecedented shares of their budgets on all this advanced technology,” the student was asking, “then why do so many of the messages and ads I get still seem so…irrelevant?”
The guest speaker, a CMO from a major CPG company, countered, “But do they all seem irrelevant?”
No, the student admitted, sometimes they hit the mark. “Like, ads for shows or music I might like or places I might want to visit.”
Then the CMO let the cat out of the bag. “It’s not just consumers who are frustrated. Many of us marketers still struggle to get what we’re hoping for out of all these tech investments. That’s why, when something works, we study it carefully and try to boil it down to the key elements – and technologies – that made it successful.”
Obvious as it seems, analyzing success in this way is something of a departure from how most digital marketers practice attribution and optimization. More frequently we see a tendency to simply double down on campaign tactics that are working and defund the ones that aren’t, without spending much effort looking for root causes. Indeed, in many instances this optimization process is automated, hiding whatever insights it might yield. And some vendors implicitly sell this black-box optimization as a benefit.
We’re coming up on budget season and articles are starting to pop up discussing CMO budget priorities for 2017 (here’s a sampling – subscription required). There are many important trends worth studying, and it always helps to have a sense of what competitors are likely thinking, but it’s worth keeping in mind that knowing why your marketing works when it works – and why it sometimes fails – may be more important than chasing the latest tech trend. We might call this data-driven prioritization, and it has a few high-level implications:
- Treat analytics as foundational across applications and agencies. Many marketers have a bias toward action, and invest in many applications to enable lots of it, quickly. Creative tools, workflow and orchestration for content marketing and programmatic advertising fall into this category. But without a common analytic footing it’s difficult to tell what’s working, and impossible to tell why. Whether in-house or outsourced, make sure all activities are wired for measurement and look for ah-ha’s. Sometimes less is still more.
- Emphasize agility and experimentation. On the other hand, with analytics in place, in digital marketing the winner is usually the player who can move the fastest to test and deploy new solutions and experiences. Don’t just test small variations in color and copy – test big ideas too, even if you can’t scale them yet. Try to be the company that disrupts you.
- Experience your customer experience. Too much machinery can make it hard to know what’s really going on. So set up personas you can use to experience your company’s marketing first-hand and see how those experiences relate to the data and analytics you’re collecting. Take pictures. Trying things out can be more cost effective and revealing than launching another intercept study.
- Keep learning from IT. Marketers may feel liberated by their increasing sway over technology investments, but avoid the temptation to be dismissive about architecture. Bimodal IT, pace layering, and two-speed marketing all share the recognition that certain elements of your enterprise architecture still require long-range planning and testing, even if they’re mainly in the cloud. Seek flexible architecture and budget for integration, not just applications. We might finally have bigger tech budgets than IT, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it anymore.
For the majority of businesses, the question of whether investments in marketing technology have really paid solid economic dividends, or whether they’re simply caught in a martech arms race that requires more and more investment just to stay competitive is still open. Spending keeps rising, but so does the share of shelfware as a folks buy into that martech arms race without fully extracting the value the tech promises.
Yet some brands we know really are marketing technology masters, growing at unprecedented rates or defending high-margin market shares, so the principles must be true. But for most, mastery remains elusive as you squint at the martech logo chart and wonder which box to build out next.
Whichever it is, there’s one trend that’s clear: it’s not just “digital” marketing anymore. It’s marketing, and it’s spreading throughout the physical world. That makes understanding it a top priority.