Customer service is crux of relevant advertising

By turning ads into a service, companies can make them more relevant, and avoid delivering messages to an unreceptive audience, says Alan Mitchell

There’s a time bomb ticking at the heart of today’s trillion dollar marketing communications industry. As we hurtle into an information age, three long-unquestioned premises of marketing are beginning to unravel. They are as follows: that while media is expensive, consumer attention comes free; that the job of marketing communications is to help sellers sell; and that marketing is something companies “do” to consumers.

As they unravel, one simple theme – consumer “relevance” – is fast becoming the defining quest for the marketing communications professional.

Starting point of the quest for relevance is a straightforward eternal verity: marketing messages that are not relevant to consumers are a terrible lose-lose. They waste consumers’ time, and marketers’ money. On the other hand, relevant marketing messages provide added value to the consumer, while at the same time maximising marketers’ returns through high response rates, with minimum wastage. A perfect win-win, in other words.

The pursuit of relevance started way back with the first attempts to segment and target customers, and with the rise of addressable media such as direct mail. But now, it is leading marketers into unfamiliar territory. Take assumption number one: that consumer attention comes free. It’s simply not true any more. Every time we receive a message it consumes our attention and our lives are made up of only so many discrete moments of attention. The more we are bombarded with communications the more they threaten to consume our lives – unless we filter them out.

In an age of information overload, therefore, the costs of sending messages for information senders may fall (look at how much it costs to send 1 million e-mails), but message receivers’ attention costs are continuing to rise. The pressure to deliver the right message to the right person, about the right thing, at the right time, and in the right context becomes irresistible.

Technologies that drive today’s marketing communications – such as TV, press and radio – are not good at delivering relevant messages, however. They are vomit technologies. They vomit standardised, pre-ingested information at consumers, who then have to pick through the goo to find the morsels that are relevant to them. They rely on consumer choice as a surrogate for relevance. And their attempts to target their spew more efficiently has created a media buyer’s nightmare: more audience and channel fragmentation.

At the same time, however, marketers’ attempts to unleash the win-win benefits of relevance is sparking all sorts of innovation. One-to-one marketing (coupled with mass customisation) attempts to address the right person, right subjectí side of things. Relationship marketing and customer relationship management (CRM) address the “right context” aspect. Event-driven marketing addresses the “right time” side of things, the classic example being the realisation that an event such as moving home triggers a whole host of related purchasing decisions. Loyalty schemes and permission marketing attempt to address the central theme that for a message to be relevant to the consumer it has to answer the question “what’s in it for me?”

Answering that “what’s in it for me?” question is proving far from easy, however. So far, the unstated (because glaringly obvious) assumption behind all marketing communications is that its job is to help sellers sell: to direct buyers to buy the seller’s brand. But consumers only respond to such programmes when the message has some relevance, or value, to them. In reality, marketing campaigns only become useful to sellers once they have proved their usefulness to buyers. The prime acid test of successful marketing communications, therefore, is whether it helps buyers buy.

Advertisers recognise this when they seek to fine tune their targeting to such a degree that their ads become “a service” to the consumer. This is precisely where “relevance” is taking us: to marketing communications as a service to the consumer, rather than a mere instrument in the hands of the seller.

Companies that fail to accept this end up shoe-horning new fangled technologies and marketing concepts into yesterday’s seller-centric approaches to marketing. As Peppers & Rogers Group partner Martha Rogers points out, many companies think they are embracing CRM, but often it’s not about the customer, it’s about the sales force. It’s not about relationships; it’s about data mining. And it’s not about management; it’s promotion marketing. “Relationship marketing” – getting closer to the consumer by gathering ever more information about them – becomes customer stalking if it is one sided. A stalker, after all, is someone who wants to “get close” to you when you don’t want to get close to them.

If the mass media are unavoidably “vomit, technologies” the great potential of the Internet is that it is a suck technology: consumers search for the information they want and pull it down when they want it.

So far, however, searching for this information is often such a hassle that good old vomit often seems better. But that’s changing as hi-tech operators such as Microstrategy develop systems like Strategy.com. These allow consumers to specify exactly what sort of information will be sent to them, at what times, by which channels (for example e-mail, mobile phone, pager, fax and so on). Chief executive Mike Saylor even talks about turning information into a utility such as electricity or water. Consumers simply access it when they want it, for their own purposes.

A new alliance between Microstrategy and data-warehousing giant NCR – provider of databases for the likes of Wal-Mart – is making these tools available to would-be e-CRM practitioners. The goal: to let companies draw on each customer’s personal transaction and interaction histories to send perfectly relevant, timely messages to each customer – but only on subjects, and at times and through channels pre-specified by that customer. NCR vice-president Dan Harrington says: “This puts the power of data warehousing into the hands of consumers.”

Marketing communications as a consumer service helps buyers to buy. Product and offer information should be made available to consumers when – and only when – it’s of value to them. The win-win logic of relevance is driving marketers down this road. Those who travel furthest, fastest have an awful lot to gain.

asmitchell@aol.com

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