If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is ever completely future proof. We’ve seen people’s needs and demands change nearly overnight, and we’ve seen brands and businesses scrambling to adapt nearly as quickly. If you need proof of that, look no further than Zoom. The 11-year-old company became a household name and the new must-have tool for educators in a flash, adding 100,000 K-12 schools to its client roster fromFebruary through April 2020.1 Who could have predicted that?
In the last 20 years we’ve seen multiple instances of unforeseen events that changed the world. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Great Recession and now the COVID-19 pandemic have re-shaped our economies and commercial environments in ways we couldn’t anticipate. After each event, the business plans, market perspectives and customer intelligence that shaped our strategies for connecting brands with people were up-ended. So what happens to people and what happens to your brand when the course of the future is altered by some unforeseen crisis or event? Is your brand prepared, and is that even possible?
While there’s no way to be fully prepared for implausible events or unpredictable conditions, the key is to adapt — quickly, efficiently, fluidly — to meet people in their new reality and connect with them in a different context. Marketing and customer engagement efforts must change to meet the in-the-moment needs of people who have been thrown off balance by extraordinary times. Since future proofing isn’t really possible, we must instead become future resilient.
Step 1: Start With a Solid Data Foundation
The key to making your marketing future resilient is a solid data foundation, the place where you can host, curate and act on your customer and prospect intelligence — the marketing database.
Yes, the marketing database, that dependable, reliable bulwark of your marketing operations, can provide you with the means to succeed in a world that is constantly shifting to meet new challenges. The data that comes into the environment will reflect how the world is changing, while the analytics coming out of it will allow you to anticipate the effects on people and how that might impact their needs and behaviors. This gives you the insight needed to plan and execute meaningful communication strategies for reaching people in their new reality.
But the marketing database isn’t just a database anymore.
- It’s a whole ecosystem of cloud-based technology, data management skills and services designed to help your brand use data to better understand and connect with people.
- It's about leveraging data and insights across all channels to develop and execute customer experiences that deepen the relationships people have with your brand.
- It’s about capturing and storing your customers’ behaviors and interactions, anytime and anywhere they interact with your brand, so you can act with meaning and purpose the next time you see them.
- It’s powered by a first-party identity graph that enables you to collect and manage identity signals and identity resolution strategies so you can truly know who your customers are across all touchpoints.
- It’s the customer data foundation that powers your audience platforms to creates and extend digital audiences.
- It’s data marts and tools to create direct marketing and addressable audience campaigns.
- It’s a place where you apply and manage customer preferences and data governance to ensure you have a customer-first approach.
- It’s a data lake for analytical environments with access to massive amounts of engagement data to uncover emerging knowledge and measure your marketing impact, setting you up for future resilience.
- It’s the data foundation that powers your entire marketing ecosystem today and tomorrow.
Data, technology, identity, people and strategies must come together in building your unified data foundation to power all of your marketing.
Step 2: Gain Customer Intelligence Through Knowing
Your marketing database helps you gain customer intelligence. And that means knowing people. It helps you see how people are reacting and interacting with your brand. Knowing something is happening is the first step to resilience.
Being proactive with your customers’ reactions will help you get ahead of the event so you can be relevant and helpful in the new normal. Anticipating how people will behave and respond to you makes it possible to build a deeper relationship, even when there isn’t some earth-shattering event. The bottom line, people expect you to know them no matter when and where they connect with your brand, and the marketing database is your key to knowing.
- To Know Is to Be Relevant
- 91% of people say they are more likely to shop with brands that provide offers and recommendations that are relevant to them.3 Yet, you can’t personalize their experience if you don’t recognize them. Your marketing database uses personally identifiable information (PII) to create identities that let you know your customers. Those identities link information from different data sources to provide key insights.
- To Know Is to Anticipate
- “91% of top marketers are either fully committed to or already implementing predictive marketing.”4 It’s important to meet people where they will be, not just where they are. The marketing database gives you the foundation to use predictive analytics to know the expected behaviors and attitudes of people, allowing your marketing strategy to anticipate people’s needs rather than just reacting to them.
- To Know Is to Engage
- 73% of people use more than one channel during their shopping journey.5 This means it’s critical you know where people are and how they want to engage. Your marketing database provides the information you need to build the right campaign journeys.
- To Know Is to Be Timely
- “71% of customers expect companies to communicate with them in real time.”6 Knowing someone means recognizing and reacting to them immediately, not two weeks from now after you’ve had time to think about it. Your marketing database connects to real-time applications so you can use the data to create more timely experiences.
- To Know Is to Be Respectful
- 79% of Americans report being concerned about the volume of data companies are collecting about them.7 Your marketing database is the vault where you can keep that which is most sacred, data about your customers, real people who want to be respected. Data trust is the foundation on which long-term relationships are built, and they are maintained through respect, transparency and choice.
Resilience in any situation is aided by knowledge, by intelligence. And when it comes to people, it’s about customer intelligence — knowing everything you can. The marketing database provides the insights and mechanisms to make those insights come to life. Failing to react to the events that are overtaking your brand or your industry, or in some cases the entire world, impacts not just people, but it also impacts your brand.
Step 3: Assess Challenges and Identify Opportunities
Failure to be resilient in the face of unforeseen events may bring on an existential crisis for some brands. Even when there is no risk that the company won’t survive, that doesn’t mean everyone is in the clear. Behaviors during extraordinary times can be career making or career limiting for decision makers and can significantly alter the course of a brand’s success.
As new conditions emerge, some business tactics may no longer serve your brand. Left unidentified, impacted customers, even those who were once mainstays of your brand, can be at significant risk. Their behaviors, having changed because of the event, indicate they may no longer be viable customers.
Any of those situations can express themselves in your marketing data. If you don’t use your best asset to detect those conditions, you may delay your response and miss the chance to avoid the negative outcomes brought on from losses or unproductive marketing spend. You may continue to pursue strategies that are not just limiting but actually harmful to the overall health of your brand.
Conversely, nascent market conditions can open doors that may have previously been closed. Customers who have been loyal to a competitor become willing to consider your brand if you can meet their new needs.
Features of your products and services may find new value during the unpredicted event. For example, the buy online, pickup in store option so many retailers were just beginning to dabble with prior to Covid saw a 259% year-over-year growth in August 2020,9 clearly indicating a shift in people’s behavior driven by the pandemic. Let new actions by customers show you their needs so you can satisfy them in more fundamental ways, ultimately strengthening the relationship you have with them.
There is no future proofing against problems that present themselves when bizarre or remarkable events occur. Interpreting opportunity within the expanse of novel conditions is not easy. Yet, the negative consequences of not assessing where you are and identifying what people expect from your brand can be devastating. Likewise, the upside of getting it right can reap not only goodwill for your brand but dollars as well.
While your marketing database by no means guarantees you’ll mitigate every problem or respond to each opportunity, it will provide the data that allows you to use your skills and knowledge to pivot away from existential threats and position your brand for its next chapter of success.
Step 4: Look Toward the Future
As we prepare for the future, it’s helpful to stop and think about what’s going to make us resilient. We should anticipate that systems will produce much more data than ever. At the same time, improvements in processor capacity will enable the creation of data at a much more granular level. Not only will there be more data, it will be available instantly. Advanced compression capabilities and faster networks will make it possible to access the new data as soon as it’s created. And as the cost of data storage continues to fall, the pressure on systems to prioritize which data to keep also diminishes.
Latency of data – that unrecoverable time between when data is created and when it can be used – will become a thing of the past. And our data management systems will need to become smarter, not just faster.
The evolutionary forces at work will drive data management systems to become more intelligent. And because there are limits to the sheer human capacity to consume and comprehend data, the increase in data velocity and volume means machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will be must-haves. But it’s also important to remember that data is about people, so how we choose to move forward with AI should not just be about performance and profits, but it should have the goal of better serving people at its center.
In the future, we predict that contextualization of data will be the most important capability data management systems offer. Understanding the meaning of data, its impact on your business and the ways you can use it will create the outcomes you desire. Machine learning and AI functions will ask themselves these questions on your brand’s behalf:
- Does the data affect what I understand?
- Data management systems will see every interaction associated with a person or entity that produces data. For example, let’s take Janice. There may be a system that detects when Janice starts her car in the morning. Seeing the car start in the same 15-minute window between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. doesn’t really tell the machine learning system anything new. A change in pattern though, Janice not starting her car at all for days on end, signals a change. The AI engine perceives this change and determines that Janice is now telecommuting. You have now been able to create a new understanding about Janice from lots of small, sometimes seemingly insignificant, pieces of data.
- Does the data affect how I categorize things?
- A newly created insight may have an impact on the way you perceive a person. We often group people in segments or audiences to make planning and engagement easier, and a newly created insight has the potential to move a person from one audience to another. The AI engine may decide that Janice, our newly identified telecommuter, should be moved from a road warrior persona to telecommuter persona. This insight changes the experience she has with your brand. Based on your new understanding of Janice, you can give her a more relevant experience. For example, if you are an insurer you may proactively discount her rates, or if you are a retailer you might offer discounts on products that cater to telecommuters. Ultimately, you improve your relationship with Janice.
- Does the data affect predicted behavior?
- Data management capabilities will be expected to forecast conditions and behaviors. Predictive models are commonplace in today’s data systems, but the AI of resilient systems will understand when changes in data cause changes in forecasts. Janice, our new telecommuter, has a different set of characteristics contextualized with a different set of behaviors. Perhaps the AI now knows that the time in the car will reduce the number of ads she experiences. She won’t be listening to as many podcasts or passing out-of-home advertising, so it will take longer for her to experience the number of ads that would result in a purchase decision. The AI knows to modify the forecast for Janice, as well as others in her segment, based on that new insight.
This is one simple example, but imagine the millions of scenarios that your data management systems must assess. These seemingly insignificant data points can have an outsized effect on business performance. Compound them one after another, thousands per second, and you assume a reality where the world changes quickly and often in unimaginable ways. Resilience means giving yourself the ability to react to each change individually and then cascade those reactions across everything you do.
Looking Toward the Future
The future is messy and unpredictable. However, it also allows us to dream, plan and prepare our brands for what may come. A solid marketing foundation is ultimately the enabler that allows you to connect with people.
The marketing database isn’t a relic of your past that only supports direct mail and other traditional marketing channels. It’s a modern source of perception, one that allows you to create holistic, channel-inclusive strategies that align customer experiences across direct channels, addressable advertising channels and interactive customer engagement platforms. The capabilities of the marketing database can optimize your customer experiences, now and in the future.
- “Zoom Saw a Huge Increase in Subscribers and Revenue — Thanks to the Pandemic,” The Verve, June 2, 2020
- “Life Beyond Lockdown: An Exploration of People’s New Attitudes and Behaviors That Will Shape the New Normal,” Acxiom, May 2020
- “Making It Personal, Why Brands Must Move from Communications to Conversations for Great Personalization” Accenture Interactive, 2018
- “Predictive Marketing and Why You Should Look Into It,” Salesforce, 2018
- “A Study of 46,000 Shoppers Shows That Omnichannel Retailing Works,” Harvard Business Review, January 03, 2017
- “State of the Connected Customer, Insights from over 8,000 consumers and businesses worldwide,” Salesforce, 2019
- “Key Takeaways on Americans’ Views About Privacy, Surveillance and Data-Sharing,” PEW Research Center, Brooke Auxier and Lee Rainie, November 15, 2019
- “The Data Trust Imperative: How brands can earn trust to generate value through data (and what happens if they fail),” Acxiom, April 2020
- “Online Merchants Gain an Extra $107 Billion in 2020 Thanks To The Pandemic,” Digital Commerce 360, September 14, 2020