Who drives the digital strategy?

How marketers can move into pole position.

The rise of digital has created unparallelled opportunities for marketers to demonstrate why their discipline is best placed to make sense of businesses’ new relationships with their customers. Yet the threats are just as great, with rival departments fighting for ownership of the digital strategy as the lines between marketing and other functions blur.

Research by digital B2B agency Omobono shows that while 88% of marketers believe they should be leading digital communications for their company, only 23% of colleagues in other departments such as customer service, IT and sales agree.

Social media has been particularly responsible for muddying the water, as it can be both a marketing and a customer service channel. Digital content can easily be turned into a tool for generating direct sales rather than achieving brand objectives and the boundaries between marketing and IT are becoming increasingly hazy as technology becomes more and more central to marketers’ jobs.

So who, ultimately, should be in charge of the digital customer experience and how much control do marketers really have?

“Many marketers are not yet educated enough to seize the initiative, so I think people feel vulnerable.”

Martin Hayward, Aimia

“At Thomson Reuters it is clear that it’s the marketing department,” says Antonia Wade, head of regional marketing, Europe. She believes it is critical for marketers to position themselves “very firmly at the heart of the organisation as the central expert”.

Her team is responsible for the execution of events, webinars, email campaigns, microsites and customer retention. The team sits alongside marketing operations, which looks after customer engagement and the website on a corporate level, while the corporate department covers brand and PR. She explains: “It’s a collective, all of us as a group own the digital agenda.”

Wade says it is the lingering dependence of businesses on legacy processes that has led to so few people believing marketing should be in charge. “Previously, it was always IT that owned the budget for platforms and strategy but since I’ve been at Thomson Reuters [a year and a half] that budget has been housed in marketing; so in that view, whoever owns the budget owns the strategy.”

But she adds: “It is not about a turf war in terms of who is in charge and who should and shouldn’t do it, it’s more about how we all bring what we have to bear so as to create something great.”

O2 has seen a rise in the number of customers using social media

Marketers are on the back foot

Martin Hayward, senior vice-president of global digital strategy and futures at Nectar owner Aimia, agrees that marketers should lead the digital strategy. However, he is not convinced they are best equipped to do so at present as many are “a bit on the back foot” in understanding technology.

“You’ve got to understand a lot of new things to manage this space and many marketers are not yet educated enough to seize the initiative, so I think people feel vulnerable,” Hayward explains. “It’s an area that is moving incredibly fast and it’s a brave person that stands up in 2015 and says ‘I don’t understand it’ because you’re expected to. It doesn’t mean you have to understand how it works but you must understand the principles of what’s going on.”

As a result, Hayward believes technologists are leading the debate as “they know what’s going on”. Yet he argues companies would be “better off starting with a customer need and trying to solve it”.

All too often “somebody invents a new piece of technology and then tries to find a reason for it to be used, which is the wrong way around”, he says. “I would hope that in due course, the person who is in charge of what the company is doing is in tune with what the customer wants – which should be the marketing team. It is then their role to call on technology and data to do what they have decided needs to be done rather than the technology dictating what happens.”

Hayward says the emergence of new titles such as chief customer officer is an attempt to bridge the divide between marketing and technology. “It’s not a well defined role yet, and for ‘chief customer officer’ you probably read ‘chief marketing officer’ as that’s what the marketer is supposed to do, but because marketing is feeling left behind and not sure what to do with all this [technology] these new roles are being talked about.” He adds: “You shouldn’t need a chief customer officer if you have a really good CMO.”

Rather than debating who owns the digital strategy, Ottokar Rosenberger, CMO at Hostelworld owner Web Reservations International, argues that marketers should be asking what they can do to drive the right type of conversation. He agrees that marketing teams need to have a “strong technical component” and is a “big advocate” of building an internal marketing intelligence team with analytical capabilities and the ability to translate marketing technology needs into a product roadmap for developers.

Nectar owner Aimia says that the emergence of titles such as chief customer officer bridge the gap between marketing and technology

However, in tandem with that businesses must have a customer-centric view and then look at what technology is needed to meet those needs.

“So then when marketers are in the boardroom it shouldn’t be a question of whether they, the chief technology officer or customer services are in charge; the question should be who can bring the strongest understanding of the customer experience to the table,” Rosenberger explains.

Although he does not believe marketers should be responsible for a company’s entire online delivery “because there is much more to it than that, especially in high-tech companies where it is core to what they do”, he does say certain aspects should be owned by the CMO.

“Management of information systems, business intelligence and analytics is one example,” adds Rosenberger. “This can sit in a product team, sometimes in the finance team but certainly for any job I take I need to have direct access to that data without having to line up behind other people in the company. I need to control it because there is a lot of ad hoc analysis that needs to happen in real time. I need to be able to optimise what we do on a daily basis and you can’t do that if you don’t control the resource.”

Melanie Berry, group senior vice-president of marketing at jewellery retailer Claire’s, believes marketers should “absolutely” be in control of the overall brand experience, but admits defining who is in charge of the digital strategy is “a tough one”.

“The digital strategy is about brand experience but it is also about the functionality of the platform and how effective digital campaigns are, so from my perspective I wouldn’t expect to be in charge of that because that’s not my specialist area,” she says.

Owing to the pace of change and technological development she believes the selection of digital systems and software should be made by “the people that know best”, whether it is the digital team, the IT department or the customer services function.

“What I would expect to be in charge of is the look and feel of how that [is represented to customers], so I work closely with the group senior vice-president of digital to make sure that whatever we do feels consistent across all touch points,” she explains. To ensure the strategy works most effectively she works closely with the entire senior management team.

Clarity of ownership is needed

Andy Weston-Webb, managing director UK & Ireland at Birds Eye, agrees that the overall brand strategy should be owned in the marketing department. “I believe that is important for the consistency and commonality of message, whatever that may be, to different target audiences,” he says. “It also ensures that the laddering up of different work all serves the higher purpose of the business in delivering its brand equity.”

However, he has a different view regarding using online as a sales channel and suggests there must be clarity around who owns it.

Accessories retailer Claire’s prioritises having good brand guidelines and every team working together

“My sales and marketing teams both understand that the ecommerce agenda is ultimately the responsibility of the sales team,” he says. “[It’s also clear] that driving ecommerce through Tesco is the responsibility of the Tesco account team as it must align with [the supermarket’s] broader business strategy and promotional programmes.” He adds that the marketing element of that is to support the business plan.

Research published last month reveals that despite 80% of UK businesses recognising the benefit of having greater alignment between internal sales and marketing teams, nearly half (40%) have no system in place to enable the two divisions to collaborate.

Ashley Friedlein, Marketing Week columnist and founder of its sister brand Econsultancy, says the marketing-sales relationship will need to grow closer as “any piece of digital content, any ad, video, piece of ‘marketing’ or customer service, also becomes a point of sale”.

Having a collaborative approach may seem like an obvious way to boost the effectiveness of digital communication generally and while most respondents to Omobono’s survey acknowledge it is important, only 28% have a formal digital strategy across their business. A further 39% have an informal joined-up approach, but a third (34%) are not integrated at all and confidence suffers as a result.

When a formal digital strategy is in place, 35% of people across all departments believe it is effective, compared to only 11% for those not joined-up, while belief in reported return on investment jumps from 11% to 52%.

Social requires consistent thinking

Social media has given customers a huge amount of power and is another example of why businesses need to shift their thinking to put consumers first. It, too, requires companies to rethink their internal set-up to ensure consistency.

O2 has seen the number of customers engaging with the brand across social channels rise by 25% year-on-year. Paul Hughes, head of social engagement, says this represents “a big shift from a customer perspective” because as people begin using the brand’s digital support options such as MyO2, web chat and social, demand for more traditional channels is falling. Indeed, average call volumes have halved over the past five years.

“As more customers want to talk to brands in a digital way, more areas of the business need to get involved with the social conversation, which is why brands are starting to work cross-organisationally,” says Hughes.

He is responsible for all responses to consumers on social media and has a team of 23 people, seven responsible for reputation and brand engagement and 16 who look after the customer service element of social, which sits in the ‘sales and service’ part of the business. Meanwhile, social campaigns are led by the marketing team, which he works with to head up the central social media hub.

“It requires a collaborative effort,” says Hughes, who believes input from both proactive and reactive teams is needed. However, he cautions that it is not “wise to expand this so every area of the business is responsible for social in some way. It needs to have central governance and a strategy behind it.”

Allow for collaboration

As a brand that does not sell directly to consumers, Birds Eye is aware of the challenges that come with building a strong digital presence and how to measure that but Weston-Webb believes there must be clarity on which team owns different aspects of the strategy, while allowing for a level of collaboration.

He says it is “impossible to expect the marketing department to be in total control of everything” given the scale of opportunity and the pace of change that digital represents.

For customer service “having a degree of understanding of how it is delivered is important but that’s where the role of the marketing team should stop. The customer services department has the expertise and ability to manage and analyse customer data. They can then feed it back into the broader business,” says Hughes.

The marketing team should play a pivotal role in understanding and helping to influence customer sentiment, though, and Weston-Webb suggests customer services “should be briefed by the marketing team on consumer response so there is consistency”.

Whoever is ultimately in charge, one thing is clear – it is companies that opt for a customer-centric approach that are going to thrive in the long term. Marketers have the opportunity to play a pivotal role in that process, as long as they have the necessary skills and expertise to make themselves indispensable.


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