This first dawned on me in September at Dreamforce.
After 18 boxed meals, 10 trips to Blue Bottle, 6 packs of gum, a few too many beers, and at least 100 conversations with smart marketers wanting to learn more about DemandJump, I became acutely aware of one thing.
The standard thought of “customer experience” applies only after a visitor has arrived on your website.
But is this really the case when we consider experience from the perspective of a consumer?
In their mind, an experience with a brand is not a partial moment in time. It’s not a fragment of a “customer journey”. It begins long before they buy your product, even before you know who they are.
Though commonly overlooked, these first touch points are crucial to fostering equitable relationships between a brand and a consumer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
These words are directly applicable to the way a consumer perceives your brand. Experience is end-to-end, soup-to-nuts, the whole shebang.
It’s every interaction, every engagement, every impression, every moment they ever experience with you, the brand.
Today we live in a new world - a world with virtually limitless choices - where consumers wield all the power.
It is precisely this shift in power that grants your customers the ability to choose who they do business with - and more importantly who they do not do business with.
The impact on marketers?
You need to be empathetic towards your consumer at every stage in the purchase cycle, starting with that first advertisement. Consumers need to think, “You are listening. You get me.”
Then, and only then, will they cross the chasm from “consumer” to “customer”.
So back to the real and entire customer experience.
Rarely, practically never, does that first engagement happen on a brand’s website.
It’s Instagram, or a display impression, or a search ad on Google.
And more often than not there are multiple off-site touch points before someone ever engages with your branded website (think ads, blogs, influencers, review websites, social platforms).
The pre-acquisition phase of the customer journey is, then, the most important opportunity to build positive brand relationships. Think about digital advertising in the context of dating. The relationship doesn’t begin when two people say “I do”. It starts with, “wanna grab lunch?” Brand relationships are built in the same way.
This is why the pre-acquisition phase of a customer's’ journey is so important when it comes to influencing consumer behavior. You haven’t built up any brand equity or trust, and thus one wrong move can turn a customer away for the long term.
After Dreamforce, I started thinking about cause and effect. Why are so many marketers building a mental wall down the center of customer experience and spending so much time focusing only on the post-acquisition half?
Of course, someone who visits your website is expressing a greater degree of purchase intent than someone who merely sees a display ad in passing. Certainly they deserve a different kind of attention. But different does not mean more or less. It simply means different.
There is so little discussion around pre-acquisition customer experience, which tells me marketers are missing out on the opportunity to drive more traffic to their websites, to their stores, and to ultimately convert more consumers into customers.
Not to mention the massive amount of buyers that visit your site, and then bounce back off into the ether without making a purchase or giving you an email address. What happens then? Do you know?
I can assure you that stalking them around the internet across channels and websites with cookie-based retargeting is not the experience that most of us are looking for.
So. Back to the causes.
Marketing organizations are traditionally very siloed. How does that affect customer experience?
Often times at DemandJump, we talk to organizations that have separate teams for eCommerce, Brand, and Digital Marketing, among other things.
More frequently, we are starting to see “growth” oriented teams that might not even report to a CMO or Marketing VP.
While a clear delineation of responsibilities is important, it can be detrimental when thinking about the entire customer journey. If eCommerce isn’t working closely with Digital Marketing, how can you ensure that both teams are delivering a seamless experience for the customer through the entire funnel?
Meanwhile, most brand teams will have a role in creative, messaging, and website experience, but they aren’t always up to speed on where media teams are actually purchasing advertising inventory.
As marketers, we need to be customer-centric - and more specifically customer journey centric - regardless of what our job description says.
From the perspective of the customer, how can we honestly feel like we’ve had a seamless brand experience if the teams delivering those experiences are siloed, with different goals and priorities?
Since the dawn of data-driven marketing, marketers have struggled to aggregate, centralize, and make sense of the massive amount of data at their disposal.
This has been made worse by what is now commonly referred to as “walled gardens” - a term used to describe the Facebooks and Googles of the world. These massive technology companies (that also happen to be the two largest sellers of digital media in the world) aren’t exactly incentivized to provide marketers with the most complete picture. Inefficiencies in advertising market economics fluff up revenues for ad sellers, especially in highly competitive programmatic media and search markets.
Simply put - your lack of visibility is helping to create the disproportionate share of digital spend going to Facebook, Google, and non-transparent ad exchanges and networks.
In addition to media-biased like Google and Facebook, who are both providing analytics and selling ad inventory, marketers are facing other data transparency issues which ultimately sway the customer experience discussion away from the pre-acquisition realm.
For one thing, even in 2018, marketers still lack the technology to provide them a “central source of the truth”. Advancements in databases, API technology, and DMPs/CDPs are helping. Yet still, much of the innovation exists only once a user is known.
To truly understand customer experience holistically, marketers need access to the right data at every stage in the funnel.
Lastly, large, traditional media agencies and other technology players in the adtech supply chain have a history of being deceptive, confusing, and downright shady. The industry is plagued by black box “solutions”, non-transparent rebates, high markups, and lame ass reporting.
Marketers are basically forced to shove their dollars into a wood-chipper and hope that a few of them squeeze out the other side in one piece.
To serve a customer experience at every touchpoint along a journey, we need knowledge. And to have that knowledge, we need accurate, transparent, and media-agnostic data and reporting.
We briefly touched on this in the previous section, but it’s so bad that it needs a little more color.
The advertising technology supply chain is so screwed up, it’s amazing that a relevant message ever reaches a consumer.
It’s likely that you have seen this before:
That’s what it takes. Really? Mankind has landed humans on the moon, but we can’t serve a relevant display ad without a supply chain that resembles the global drug trade?
Interestingly enough, the whole system operates kind of like the drug trade - one of many reasons why the FBI has recently launched an investigation into media buying practices.
The whole thing is a series of markups, back alleys, tolls, and gatekeepers, which ultimately leaves marketers footing a bill that is 50-90% higher than fair market value.
Oh. And because we don’t actually have visibility into those dollars (see above section) marketers aren’t empowered to do anything about it - unless you purchase ads exclusively through direct deals - a tactic that is effective, but lacks the many great efficiency benefits of programmatic buying.
While I agree that adtech could use a timeout (and probably a stern spanking), it’s unlikely that marketers will scale back spend unless they can definitively point to something - or a lot of things - that are broken.
All of this to say, if marketers are to confidently deliver exceptional, end-to-end customer experiences, we need to instill faith in the supply chain that actually delivers these brand messages.
The FBI investigation is one thing, but marketers need more visibility into how their money is actually performing before we can affect real change.
Like all transformational movements, it starts with you. It starts with a marketer who infects their organization with the belief that customer experience is end-to-end.
All the technology and data in the entire world means nothing if you aren’t wholly bought into the idea that every touchpoint matters - that experience is neither static, nor partial, nor linear.
The first step towards changing behavior is accepting that an ad impression matters just like your web experience and your customer service response matters.
Change your mindset. Believe that empathy towards your customers is not optional. It’s not boardroom talk. It’s not a fluffy afterthought. It is the most critical piece of your strategy. It should be your guiding light - validated by data - that grounds every decision you make as a marketer and as a business.
So how can we be empathetic in a world overcome by privacy concerns? How can we be both relevant and respectful?
Consumers are demanding a lot from brands. They want you to know them without knowing too much - without being creepy.
It’s a vicious paradox, where marketers are constantly chasing data-first ROI, in a world that is becoming increasingly more privacy-first. This paradox creates difficult challenges, but there are ways around it.
In the end, it comes back to empathy. Think like a consumer (I’m assuming everyone reading this buys things). What information are you comfortable with brands knowing about you? Your spouse? Your friends? Your kids?
At some point, enough is enough. We shouldn’t need access to PII to create and serve great marketing.
In the above article, AdAge goes so far as to say that, “Non-PII traits are the goldmine of insight into who your customers really are and what factors drive their behavior.”
As brands, we have to become un-addicted to the allure and promise of hyper-granular demographic data. As if this was ever effective in the first place, it will become even more irrelevant as the creepy pools of audience data dry up. You can thank GDPR, CCPA, and future national and global regulation for that.
But seriously, you should thank GDPR & CCPA because demographic data has always delivered subpar performance. Non-PII traits including aggregate traffic patterns and other ethically sourced first party data have and will always empower marketers to reach more of the right consumers compared to 3rd party audience data - where the leading provider is only 37% accurate.
Many brands don’t know it yet, but privacy regulation will ultimately be one of the best things to happen to marketing - and to consumers.
The takeaway? Identify sources of reliable, non-PII data and use that to serve relevant marketing to your target consumers. The increase in customer experience will ultimately be reflected in campaign performance and, more importantly, on the southwest corner of your income statement (re: net profit).
Performance marketing is not a new concept but it is only recently starting to mature as a significant marketing strategy. Going back as far as 2004, it was a concept that marketers were exploring, but most, if not all organizations did not have access to the data, technology, and expertise needed to actually execute a true performance marketing strategy. Especially not in a the unified realm of digital.
Interestingly, many organizations are guilty of separating the intensely data-driven marketers from the creative, brand, and experience marketers.
But consider this.
If we are truly aligned around customer experience as a strategy that will facilitate transformative business results, then all teams need to be aligned around the same goal.
Therefore, the main objective of understanding data is really to understand your customers - and your future customers.
On the digital marketing side of the house, the main objective is to know where & when to reach consumers for the lowest amount of resources (spend/time/frequency).
And the main objective of the brand and creative teams is to understand how & what to say.
Performance marketing is not a “team” or a “group”. Performance marketing is a culture. It should be foundational regardless of where you sit in an organization and certainly extend as far up as the executive suite.
We just have to remember “the why”. As marketers, we aren’t chasing clicks, impressions, conversions, and revenue. We are chasing people. Real, human people. The data and the culture serve as the means to a greater end. What is that end? To truly understand consumers and build meaningful (ultimately profitable) relationships with them.
We need to cross the customer experience chasm. We need to sew together the seams and silos and buy into the idea that a customer journey is holistic.
Customers don’t separate their experience by your teams, by your lifecycle stages, by the personas and journey maps sitting in your marketing folder. To them, the experience is simply the way your brand makes them feel - and every touchpoint impacts that emotional connection.
Data is critical towards understanding who our customer is at a deeper level - where they shop, what they think, how they buy. But in order to act on data in a way that is unified across your team and around your customer, we must be truly empathetic.
At the end of the day, if you are honest with yourself, is your brand really customer-centric, or are you just checking a box for good measure?
Let’s treat people like people at every stage in the customer journey.
It’s time to transform customer experience.