What’s marketing got to do with IT?

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Marketing and IT don’t always speak the same language, but this is set to change as social commerce escalates brand engagement with consumers.

Technology is one of those things that most of us think happens in a dingy basement with a couple of nerdy guys in plaid shirts and dark-rimmed glasses talking in the bits and bytes language that goes right over most people’s heads – think Roy and Moss in the comedy The IT Crowd.

But marketing and IT are more closely connected than you think – with “social commerce” being the new buzzword that is set to drive brands forward, it means marketers who can get to grips with how technology can enhance customer engagement and drive greater customer interaction and experiences will be better equipped to propel their brands ahead of their competitors.

Marketers don’t have to take night courses in computer science, but being more closely aligned with the people that deliver their digital strategy can only make them better at understanding the potential to create new and innovative customer experiences.

And, if what I heard at a conference in Berlin last week run by software company Day is to be believed, marketing and technology are only going to get closer as the desire to deliver customer experiences increasingly marries up with creative uses of existing and new technologies.

One speaker, Dan Barnicle, who is vice president of content management and collaboration for agency Sapient Nitro, went so far as to predict that marketing, e-commerce and sales support divisions will gradually merge to create a combined “customer experience department”, headed up by one director.

Surely a marketer will be best suited to take that leading role, to ensure that the brand’s visions, principles and ambitions are delivered across all customer touchpoints, whether it is an online or a physical department. But that debate is the stuff of another column.

What is clear is the brilliance that can happen when technology is used in a way that not only enhances the brand like never before, but embeds it in the minds of consumers, and ultimately leads to more new and repeat purchases.

I talked about European mum and baby retailer Prenatal already last week, highlighting its creation of a social commerce platform that links a captive customer community with relevant branded content and appropriately placed product messages to drive sales.

Such is the strength of this kind of community that Day software’s chief marketing officer Kevin Cochrane claims that a community can be a “fundamental basis” for a brand’s online platform because of how people’s online purchasing decisions can be influenced by their peers.

And, Gartner’s lead analyst for web content management, Mick MacCamascaigh, adds that by 2014, 60% of e-commerce platforms will be targeted towards online communities, along with mobile users. The Times newspaper’s online paywall may not automatically make you think it’s a community, but it is an example of one of the communities that MacCamascaigh speaks of, and is experiencing success so far.

Such initiatives take brands online beyond simple click and pay transactional interactions with their customers, as Prenatal’s international director of e-commerce Chris Wilson notes.

Meanwhile, premium hotel brand Hyatt is doing noteworthy things online through its Global Passport VIP community and plans to introduce more travel based content. But interestingly, it has come full circle to bring a heightened digital element back into the physical by rolling out iPad devices across its hotel staff network. Reception staff will be able to use the device to check guests in and out more readily, while new business managers can use it to give presentations to prospective new guests, especially for large corporate functions.

This is not strictly a marketing initiative, but Hyatt has based its investment on the fact that it will create a new kind of customer engagement that will give its brand a greater positive perception.

Day’s Cochrane comments: “Hyatt has recognised the direction it needed to go to create a new set of customer experiences. It recognised that customer engagement is also about personal experiences. The iPad brings a new level of engagement and hopefully that is what the future holds for everyone.”

Most brands have probably yet to get to this stage, but innovation in the mobile space is already moving beyond simply developing a branded app that is merely an altered version of an existing website. South African investment bank Investec recognised that to fight against the heavyweight incumbents of this industry, it would need to do more than sponsor a football club.

It did do that, but in its sponsorship of corporate events, the brand came up with a way to embed itself in the minds of its audience. Investec launched a mobile site for a recent motor racing event at Goodwood that it sponsored, to make it come more alive than a standard banner or hospitality tent would enable. Its special branded site included event information, weather updates, maps, contact details and FAQs so guests could access the site to plan their days seamlessly, all thanks to their friends at Investec.

Even Chanel is getting in on the act, and like Hyatt, is bringing the digital back to the physical, by implementing in-store kiosks and digital in-store signage. Sapient Nitro’s Barnicle says adoption of such technology will increase as the rollout price for such technology becomes lower, and it will eventually become cheaper to implement digital in-store signage, that is more interactive for customers, than it will be to change posters weekly.

Gartner’s MacCamascaigh says there are more new technologies to come that brands can get excited about that will further heighten consumer experiences: image recognition and location based technologies, near field communication which allows transactions to take place by swiping mobile phones, as well as 3D displays and display touch screens. And to echo Barnicle’s earlier statement on marketing, customer services and e-commerce in the future combining to become a single customer experience division, the future lies also in there not being a standalone digital strategy, but purely a strategy where the physical and the digital are woven seamlessly together.

But, as was a continuing theme during Day’s conference, whatever experience a brand wants to deliver must be aligned with a specific business objective that will deliver a return, and this is where technology and marketing must work together.

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