by Bryon Sheffield
The Practitioner’s Paradox
When it comes to acquiring and retaining customers, for the practicing marketer not much has fundamentally changed in the last several decades.
Identify the right person. Deliver the right message. Execute at the right time. Marketing 101. Conceptually it is quite simple. Identify individuals or organizations that will benefit from our product’s value, determine the story that will motivate them toward desirable outcomes, and lock in moments when our storytelling needs to be present. Easy, right?
Practically speaking, while the ‘right person-right message-right time’ framework is conceptually elementary, that Marketing 101 is simultaneously marketing’s Holy Grail. And for anyone who has brushed up against Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th century prose, Le Morte d’Arthur, or John Boorman’s 1981 epic fantasy film, Excalibur, we know that achieving the grail is anything but elementary. Even if our only exposure to the legend of the grail is Monty Python’s hilarious send-up, it’s pretty clear we’re confronting a puzzling paradox.
How can something so simple in concept be so frustratingly hard in practice?
The answer lies in the manners in which customers make decisions and the methods by which they consume information to support them. Those manners and methods are moving targets and hitting a moving target is rarely easy. So, while hewing toward the ‘right person-right message-right time’ north star is important, it is critical to support that with a paradigm I’ll refer to as the three Cs to finding marketing’s holy grail: customer, content, and contact. This article will provide a thin slice of each of the four and, hopefully, some food for thought and further discussion.
Before getting into the outline, it is also important to note that this paradigm is not a challenge to the seminal work of E. Jerome McCarthy when he defined the “4 Ps” (drafting off of Neil Borden’s ideas). They remain as relevant today as in the 1960s. In fact, the three Cs blend squarely into place and promotion.
The First C: Customer
Few will argue that having a deep understanding of our customer is important if we intend to effectively service their needs. Ideally, we are developing that understanding at a 1:1 level and can translate it into a plan to uniquely satisfy each customer. More than likely, we are segmenting customers into groups of various definitions and building experiences and media plans around reaching those groups. This hints at the need for a broader strategic discussion on where segments originate and our capability to deliver unique experiences.
As it relates to our quest for the grail, the important point is that we have a firm grasp of which customer segments exist, what differentiates them, and how we will distinctly message them. Multiple segments are irrelevant for anything other than rear-view analysis if we aren’t investing in the build and delivery of corresponding experiences.
A quick note on customer segmentation. Peter Fader, in his book The Customer Centricity Playbook, posits that customer segments based on predetermined demographic personas are counterproductive to achieving true customer equity. Segments based on value, specifically customer lifetime value, are the key to effective acquisition and retention.
The Second C: Content
Since “the right message” is likely distinct depending on the audience segment to which it is delivered, having in place a content creation apparatus capable of producing meaningfully distinct messaging by customer segment is crucial. While this C is arguably the easiest to understand it is often the most difficult to execute. It literally comes down to the words and images we use to convey meaning and express value. Now, if we’ve done no customer segmentation, we probably don’t struggle with this. One big, homogenous audience. One big, homogenous message. Also, if we don’t struggle with this, we are probably doing it wrong.
Assuming that we have some level of customer segmentation and we’ve thought through the stories that convey our product’s value to each, we need to actually produce the assets to fuel our marketing campaigns. This means writing the copy. Filming the video. Designing the images. Building the pages. Assembling the finished product. Therein lies the sticking point for most organizations. And, the more granular our segmentation and storytelling, the more complicated this becomes.
The gating factor to delivering unique experiences is rarely an organization’s inability to define unique segments, regardless of whether segmentation is persona-based or value-based. Instead, production capacity is the issue. So, it is important to think through how many stories we can actually tell and how consistently we can tell them as customers move through the funnel. Again, if we define a segment, but don’t treat it any differently, it is a segment in name only.
The Third C: Contact
This article does not delve into the concept of customer journey, but understanding the evolving needs and perceptions of our customers, and how we intend to position our brand, is important in developing a contact strategy capable of defining sequence, frequency, timing, and method of communication at each stage of the demand funnel.
Sequence is the order in which touchpoints are delivered; frequency is the volume; timing is the lag between touches; and method is media we employ. In a perfect world, building a contact strategy is both channel (DTC, retail, wholesale) and tactic (social media, direct mail, linear TV) agnostic. The ultimate objective is to increase customer equity by driving higher purchase frequency, average order value, share of wallet, and referral while driving down acquisition cost. In many cases, our situations are not ideal. Even with the continued evolution of omnichannel thinking, ecommerce often sits separately from physical retail. Leaders and teams are incentivized according to channel production as opposed to overall customer value. Within marketing departments, teams are often built around tactics, especially in the digital space. Email seeks credit for the same customer as paid search despite the fact that both likely contributed to revenue production. These issues can often stymie a sophisticated contact strategy. “Wait, you mean there are times when I shouldn’t send my shiny new promotion to everyone on my email list?” An oversimplification, for sure, but we’ve likely all been in situations where channels or tactics have driven decisions not in the best interest of driving overall customer value.
Given the deep structural, financial, and cultural roots these challenges have in many organizations, overcoming them is no simple task. Part of the solution exists in aggressively analyzing our contact strategy as granularly as possible, both in terms of customers and media. Understand the parts and how they all work together toward a “sum is greater” result. This requires teams, technologies, and a willingness to escape narrow measurement methodologies. Heaven forbid we are still evaluating performance using last-touch attribution. But, even if we’ve elevated to a more sophisticated multi-touch approach (including those that can provide insight to offline interactions), recognize that understanding the true value of the overall contact strategy relative to overall customer equity will require complementary analytical methodologies like media mix modeling.
Okay, one more C: Conclusion
We’re all on a quest. And it’s an epic one. No, we’re not trying to save a dying king with the chalice from Christ’s Last Supper, but we are trying to build our brands by delivering meaningful experiences that acquire and retain profitable customers. Hopefully, we’re doing that with purpose. Putting as much good in the world through our profit as we can.
The three Cs can help frame that quest. Segment customers in a way that enables meaningfully distinct storytelling. Build content capabilities that enable those stories to be told, creatively and consistently. Orchestrate contact strategies that meet customers where they are and adapt to evolving needs and behaviors as they move through the funnel.
As a bonus C, we should spend time thinking about technologies to coordinate our execution. Whether or not we have an army of operators and analysts, current tech can simplify, augment, and optimize the strategic work we are doing to acquire and retain customers. Don’t be embarrassed to admit that the machines are smarter than we are. They can’t always capture the nuance of our businesses or provide the strategic guidance necessary to drive growth (that’s where us savvy marketers come in), but they can make our lives easier.
Right person. Right message. Right time. Marketing 101, right?