Is there a role for creativity in automated marketing?

The growing dependence on data and technology means marketing is becoming increasingly automated, but that doesn’t mean marketers can become complacent and neglect the importance of creativity and planning in automated campaigns.

Automation is becoming an ever-growing feature of marketers’ lives. In the business-to-business sector alone, 11 times more companies are now using it than in 2011, according to a 2014 report by SiriusDecisions.

As the technology and data available to brands continues to advance, the management of more and more marketing functions is shifting to algorithm-led software aimed at creating efficient and targeted communications plans. But given this dependence on data and automation, what is the role for creativity and planning, and how important is it to keep emotional engagement with audiences in mind when implementing automated campaigns?

In reality, creativity and automation are not mutually exclusive. Sue Varley, brand lead for Very.co.uk notes that creativity played a big part in the online retailer’s Christmas 2014 marketing because of its commitment to using rich media formats and personalised messaging. The brand worked with mobile marketing agency Somo on the campaign, which used programmatic buying to serve adverts to Very.co.uk’s audience in real time according to their behaviour, such as when they were ‘second screening’ on mobile devices during the brand’s TV advert.

The campaign also used geo-fencing to identify customers who had visited the high street during the day, presumably to do some Christmas shopping. The brand then targeted those customers with an SMS message later in the evening when they were likely to be at home and ready to continue shopping online.

Varley explains that creativity was central to the campaign because of a rigorous planning process that ensured core creative assets were adapted to different media. By using tracking technology to measure post-impression activity and clicks across multiple devices, Very.co.uk was also able to see which placements and creative messages created the highest value customers on the site, allowing for further optimisation. According to the brand, the Christmas campaign achieved a return on investment of 15:1.

“All the creative, whatever the format, was integrated across all touch points. For example, content from the Christmas TV ad was taken and used to create a rich media unit which ran across mobile devices as part of this campaign,” says Varley.

“The creative formats included engaging elements to drive brand reappraisal and pure performance elements to generate in-session clicks to the website.”

Mobile devices offer brands a wealth of opportunity to inject creativity and innovation into their automated campaigns. Car marque Hyundai, for example, made mobile users the focus of a real-time advertising campaign in Germany last year to support the launch of its i10 model. The campaign – a collaboration between wywy, Havas and Innocean on AppNexus’s advertising platform – sought to reach mobile users by serving ads and a refreshed web page in response to each airing of the TV creative.

People visiting the Hyundai website within 180 seconds of the ad being broadcast were presented with dedicated i10 content, meaning that consumers driven to the site by the TV commercial could quickly find out more information about the model. In addition, mobile ads were served in real-time to target customers who were browsing the web on any device while the TV ad was on air. Hyundai reports that the campaign achieved a 470% uplift in conversions – in other words site visitors who requested additional information about the car – compared to the TV-only stage of the campaign.

Martin Sir, head of marketing communication and trade marketing at Hyundai, suggests that the entire campaign approach was a unique and creative application of automated technology. “Our second-screen campaign showcased these values by innovatively aligning our paid-for and owned media in a way that significantly boosted engagement,” he adds.

Visualising a customer’s journey from planning to when they arrive at Heathrow is critical for the airport to spot any gaps in communications

Polly Browne, platforms specialist at Google’s ad serving business DoubleClick, believes that the growth of programmatic buying is putting pressure on the relationship between brands, creative agencies and media agencies. While she notes that “ownership” of programmatic predominantly lies with media agencies at present, she urges brands to foster greater levels of collaboration across their different suppliers in order to produce more creative campaigns.

“We’ve got all the levers in place from a buying standpoint, so that [programmatic] operates very efficiently,” notes Browne. “I think the piece we haven’t done so well as an industry is focus on effectiveness. The media efficiency is only a part of it because you need to have the creative and messaging aligned with that.”

She argues that there are huge opportunities for brands to produce “dynamic creative” through their programmatic campaigns, such as creative that is tailored to audiences, environments and contexts. However she adds that this requires a re-evaluation of the briefs that brands give their agencies and an appreciation of key data signals at an earlier stage of the planning process.

“It’s not necessarily about having a big budget,” she asserts. “It’s just about aligning all these points together. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Planning is also essential to understanding customer behaviour ahead of a campaign launch. Simon Chatfield, head of e-business and CRM at Heathrow Airport, argues that using insight to build up a detailed picture of the customer journey is a critical first stage in any automated campaign. This provides the platform for creativity and powerful brand messaging, he argues (see Viewpoint, below).

The National Trust is similarly putting data analytics at the heart of its automated marketing functions. In 2013 the conservation charity embarked upon a campaign aimed at creating more predictive email and online marketing campaigns that would better target different stakeholders.

The organisation has a diverse membership base, ranging from regular supporters to occasional donors, while its activities vary hugely from managing estates to renting out holiday homes and hosting events. Using the Adobe Campaign software platform and analytics tools from Alteryx, automation allows the National Trust to draw its different data strands together and better coordinate communications.

“In the past we have had data stored in different siloed repositories, so one thing that we’ve done is consolidate that together in a single data warehouse,” explains the National Trust’s head of data science Dean Jones. “That gives us the whole picture of our supporters, which in turn allows us to make predictions about their behaviour and what people are likely to do in the future.”

The National Trust also uses data on the time it takes to drive to a property from a given location, in order to identify and promote the sites that members are most likely to visit when sending out emails. Jones reveals the charity is looking at the possibility of using Met Office data to further refine messages according to the weather and the likelihood that people will venture outdoors. He claims that by thinking more precisely about how people behave, the National Trust has also become more creative in how it communicates.

“We need to think more deeply about how we are communicating with people because not everybody is getting the same message,” he asserts. “There is also an experimental element to this because we are testing communications and evaluating the effects. That’s a creative process in itself.”

Joshna Patel, head of online at Red Letter Days, says that creativity plays a big part in encouraging inactive email subscribers to re-engage with the experience gifts company. Working with email marketing agency Return Path, the company seeks to entice former customers to open messages and engage with its content by experimenting with different email designs.

“Obviously the subject line needs to get people to open the email, but once they open we run different tests around the campaign and the mailing design,” Patel explains. “That involves working with the creative team to make it as enticing as possible, as well as looking at reports in terms of click-throughs and the content that people are looking at.”

Patel says this approach, combined with an uplift in email deliverability after gaining IP certification from Return Path last year, has produced a 10% upturn in revenue.

Automation can detract from creativity and effective planning if marketers become complacent and place too much faith in big data and technology to do all the work itself. However if marketers can retain oversight of their automated campaigns and co-ordinate strategies across their various agencies, automation can provide new opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Automation plays a vital role in shaping how we engage with our customers and loyalty members, but without valuable insights into how they are choosing to interact with us or what approaches will warrant the greatest level of impact at different stages of their journey, these messages will never fulfil their true potential. We see planning as a critical part of this process.

We’ve worked hard with our strategic CRM partner Acxiom to recognise the key moments in the journeys our customers go on when planning their travel, the opportunities for us to interact with them, and the channels and data we use and need to effectively engage. For us, visualising this journey – from the planning and consideration stage, through the booking process, to what customers do when they arrive in the terminal – is critical. It enables us to spot the gaps and shortfalls in our communications.

If you don’t operate in this way, the messages you automate will have little to no impact and not take into account the needs or behaviour your customers are exhibiting. Adopting this approach has allowed us to develop contact strategies that are aligned to our audience, data and content – with a key focus on the passenger behaviours we are trying to influence.

Without effective planning this would not be possible. It helps define the goals for the CRM program.  However once you have established this insight you need to continually review performance at a strategic and campaign level and this is where planning continues to be essential by asking key questions such as: What’s the commercial implication of this activity? Can I effectively interpret the results and KPIs this will generate? By devising hypotheses and testing them, the planning function continually looks for improvements.

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