Marketing has always been about building relationships with customers; but how do you do that when the customer is digital-first?

This was the question posed by Jonathan Beeston, Product Marketing Director EMEA at Salesforce, at the beginning of the sponsored session, ‘Getting the balance right: The future for data-driven marketing’ at the Festival of Marketing: Fast Forward. The question of how to build relationships with the digital consumer is by no means a new one, but it has become far more urgent in the past year and a half due to the overwhelming shift to digital prompted by Covid-19.

Beeston cited some statistics to illustrate the disparity between what customers expect from brands and how well brands are able to deliver it: according to Salesforce’s ‘State of the Connected Consumer’ and ‘State of Marketing’ research, 84% of customers say that being treated like a person and not a number is very important to winning their business. This seems reasonable enough as an expectation; but just 34% of brands have said that they have the capability to treat customers as unique individuals.

Data presents a potential solution to this dilemma, allowing marketers to better understand who their customers are and what they want and need from the business. According to the CMO Council’s ‘Getting it Done in 2021’ report, 53% of CMO Council members said that ‘Analytics, insights and intelligence’ are a martech investment priority in 2021, while 26% highlighted ‘Actioning on customer data insight’ as a key area of improvement.

But data can be as much of a hindrance as a help when it comes to creating connections with your customers – depending on how you approach it. Beeston spoke to Alexander Murphy, Head of Marketing at insurance brand Admiral, about his approach to working with first-party data, why digital marketing should return to the techniques that were perfected in its early days, and why humanising the data is critical to retaining sight of customer needs.

A return to marketing’s roots

As Head of Marketing for Admiral, Murphy is responsible for “everything we do, from TV to PPC, PR and eCRM”. He observed that the role as it is now “is probably more like a Head of Marketing role was 10 or 15 years ago than it might have been in the intervening years.

“That’s what I find so compelling about the role – it feels like it’s all come full circle,” he added. “It’s much more about the customer now than it used to be. I don’t believe we [as marketers] have always been about building relationships – I think we lost our way a bit over the past decade or so, and we’ve come back to it now. Yes, absolutely accelerated by the last 18 months – but it was already happening.”

The question of how to deliver the same quality of customer experience, personalisation and targeting in a world with greatly reduced access to third-party data has dominated the conversation since the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into existence, and then into effect, followed by similar legislation like the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) aimed at preventing companies from collecting and profiting from consumers’ data without their explicit consent. The impending demise of third-party tracking cookies has only added fuel to that conversation.

But as Murphy outlined, marketers didn’t always have the same attitude towards, or feel entitled to the same level of access to, third-party data. “When I started [as a marketer], first-party data was all I had; I worked with quite small companies, and you couldn’t even get third-party data, not really. Buying third-party data was buying lists from some shady company and ringing them all – cold-calling – which everyone knew didn’t work. We knew that was shady, years ago, but we sort of lost our way, a little bit.

“So, you used first-party data, because you couldn’t even afford those lists, and so you knew your customer. At the companies that I worked in, you learned segmentation because it was efficient – you couldn’t afford to just send stuff out to customers all the time.”

Murphy gave the example of one of his early roles at the University of Glamorgan, where marketers working at the university knew all of the students who would potentially be studying there. “Database management was one of the most important roles in marketing,” he recalled. “We didn’t really do buying banners, or buying third-party data, or anything like that – it was all about understanding that student’s journey.”

On top of being effective, this approach to marketing was “relatively inexpensive” – but over time, marketing began to rely much more heavily on third-party data like lookalike audiences, and the price of those audiences rose steadily – as did the layers of technology underpinning them. “You’ve got like seventeen different vendors between you and the customer. You don’t know who this person is – and, as we found out over the last few years, it ended up that most of those people weren’t even people.”

In his role at Admiral, Murphy had less marketing budget to work with than he had done in previous roles at companies like the Royal Mint and GoCompare, which forced the team to work mainly with what they had: first-party data.

“Ten, fifteen, years ago, you wouldn’t have ever had customer data as a business that you wouldn’t be able to link to its owners. We had got into that position because people had gone, ‘Well, we don’t need these connections with all this fantastic, rich, data because we’ll just do it over here, with all this tech.’

“And tech definitely has its place – I’m not bashing display or third-party data. But I think we lost how important that first-party data was – and as it was ingested by the business, we lost our ability to have those conversations with customers and really know who they were. It’s ironic, because particularly in finance, ‘Know your customer’ is one of their principles. But as marketers, we didn’t know them.”

Getting the most out of first-party data

Having first-party data is just the first step in the process of divining insights from that data and then putting it into practice in campaigns. Beeston asked Murphy how Admiral goes about “finding something interesting” amidst all of its first-party data and then testing, executing and trying new things.

“The key thing is a proper analyst,” said Murphy. He gave the example of a potential scenario in which a segment of Admiral’s customers continued to use the call centres even though they could accomplish what they needed online more easily. Rather than simply switch to targeting their display ads at more digitally-savvy customers, Admiral would use analysis to determine that these customers might be worried about making a mistake online that would invalidate their insurance claim, and speak to customers directly to confirm it.

“You find out more about your customer – and then you establish what that need is. And you work out how you’re going to fulfil that need,” said Murphy. “Maybe you need to do more reassurance. Maybe they need a whole separate journey so that they feel like that need of theirs is understood.

“It’s about getting a proper analyst – or someone with an analytical mind – to sit there, not leap to assumptions, and slowly work through, almost in a design thinking process, from problem to potential solutions. And then work up those solutions.” Even if the conclusions drawn from the data are wrong, Murphy added, they can still teach you something about your customers.

“If you’re just relying on emotionless data, and not understanding the needs of the customer – you’re never going to make these insights.”

He stressed the importance of “humanising the data” by thinking about the people behind the data set rather than numbers and percentages. “There’s a person at the end of this. And they don’t do this thing because of concerns or problems in their lives – or they do this thing because of their own life, and their own motivations. We need to fully understand those.”

“It’s not ‘23% of people do XYZ’ – it’s, ‘People with kids don’t like to do this. And we might lose a portion of that audience if we don’t do something to satisfy them.’ And then you’re speaking to the people – you’re not talking about numbers. I think that’s a key thing.” This kind of context can also aid marketers in making the case to other members of the business about why they need budget or help with a project, or why a change is worth making even if it has an adverse impact on another team’s KPIs.

“You’ve got to identify – why is satisfying these needs more important than satisfying these other needs? Because that’s ultimately what we’re all doing – trying to satisfy needs.”

Murphy offered three key recommendations to marketers who want to use first-party data more effectively and take a more data-driven approach to marketing.

1) Keep your hand in as you move up the business

Murphy pointed out that many marketing leaders, as they move up the ranks of the organisation, are less hands-on in their roles and might have lost the touch that they had as practitioners. However, their employees lower down the organisation are learning from and taking cues from them, which causes problems if these cues are based on out-of-date ideas or faulty insight.

“You’ve gotta be very careful – and if you feel like you don’t know some of these things, maybe you’ve got rusty. Don’t be too proud – as senior marketers, maybe we need to go back and re-learn some of our core principles.”

2) No marketer is an island

“No man is an island – you need the rest of the business to come with you,” said Murphy. “Don’t be so arrogant as to think that just because you’ve identified the problem and you see it as a problem, that the rest of the business agrees with you.

“It’s amazing how I’ll go into a pitch to get more budget to solve a problem, and my CEO doesn’t think it’s a problem. And rightfully so, because there hasn’t been enough evidence there – we’ve already leapt to a solution. You need to bring the business with you … you need to establish [the problem] with the right data, and strong analysis, and a good understanding of the person on the other end of this.”

3) Be systematic

“As marketers, we like the shiny new things,” said Murphy. “‘Oh, let’s try this cool idea – let’s try that cool idea.’ We’re habitually like that, as marketers – at least many of the marketers I know.

“But as a principle, I think we need to see the real people in that dataset … and then systematically go through that process – whether that’s a design thinking process, whether it’s a motivational sequence, or whatever sequence it is. Stick to it, because you get speed through process – you waste less time. It’s not very sexy, but that’s what works for me, and for the teams that I’ve worked with.”

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