The art of modern marketing

As Robert M. Prisig said in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “A motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel.” I agree with him, but I prefer motorcycles that don’t have a lot of electronics on them.

Sure, the technology on some of the new bikes is impressive. They go faster, run smoother and are generally more reliable. But, you pay a price for all that convenience. All too often that advanced technology separates the rider from the fundamental experience of riding. And, I am almost too embarrassed to say, that today something similar is happening in the field of digital marketing.

The digital experience

The idea of the world being flat caught on very quickly in digital marketing, especially in Asia. But, just like state-of-the-art motorcycles, that approach ignores something fundamental – an in-depth understanding of the audience you are reaching out to.

Frankly, the idea that “one message fits all,” has never made any sense to me. That kind of broad brush approach doesn’t even work in the US, which is often described as one big market, let alone across a huge region like Asia Pacific.

There’s no sense trying to target someone in Singapore with a message that was dreamed up and probably works great in Silicon Valley. It has to have a local message that resonates with the people in that market.

The digital world is also something of a paradox. What I mean is that, because you can get almost immediate feedback on what’s happening to the messages – who is clicking, opening and following through – there is a huge temptation to follow them.

The danger is that companies can find themselves drawn away from their core brand and what they are as a company, and just follow the clicks of the masses.

The rise of the machines

It may be heresy, but I believe firmly that Google and a few other analytics applications have all but ruined online marketing. They’ve given us access to huge volumes of data, but we’ve forgotten that we are really talking to people.

While artificial intelligence (AI) does seem to be getting better almost on a monthly basis, it sometimes feels like a lot of those tools are taking companies further and further away from understanding who their true market really is.

The danger is that they end up calibrating for someone who doesn’t exist – a statistically average individual. And, since everyone is pretty much using the same tools, everyone ends up chasing after a very similar customer profile.

What’s more, the messages are changed on a whim, based on whether they test and resonate well rather than offer a representative impression of what the brand or product is actually all about. But, when that happens, you are no longer communicating. The marketing just takes over and the goals get lost in the roar of the data flooding through the servers.

It is really hard to stand out in the digital world. Fewer marketing people in companies have the courage of their convictions and are willing to stay the course. I think ShoreTel is an exception. Our message is “Brilliantly simple” and we are sticking to it.

We don’t talk about speeds and feeds, features and functions. Instead we focus on the customer experience. Understanding their challenges and making the solution, simpler, easier and relevant to their day-to-day business. That is a critical difference that most tech companies never see.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve seen a serious dilution in brands, many of whom have lost their way and no longer know what they stand for. Or, they don’t stand for what they used to. They stand for whatever the latest output from their marketing analytics package tells them people want to see or hear about.

Hope on the horizon?

Unfortunately, in the next few years I think we’re going to see a lot more of the same. However, at some point there will be a major shift. I am talking about a change from the “everything is digital marketing” mantra, to thinking about “marketing digitally.” And, it won’t be exclusively digital either.

If you look at recent reports from Forrester, something like 18% of demand generation opportunities are actually coming from face-to-face conversations, at events or other interactions.

These are the trade shows that people have been saying are dead and gone. The reality is they are still an important part of the marketeer’s arsenal. But you have to exploit them from a position of marketing within a digital world, not vice versa.

Don’t get hung up on the latest analytics or reports and get back to the basics! Instead, focus on who the customer you are hoping to reach actually is, and what resonates with them.

More than ever, it’s easy to be distracted by the amount of data and forget that marketing is fundamentally about talking to a human being. However, we still live in a real world. Companies have to get better at positioning themselves and their offerings within that environment.

Sure, some of the digital tools can help. But, it is critical not to “over-rotate.” At the end of the day, everything is still about people and the message has to grab them.

Talking the CMO talk

The real conversation that CMOs need to have within their business is about organisational design. Or, specifically, how to optimise customer interactions.

It is all too easy to fall back on the typical marketing organisational structure by default. But, how often does a CMO get a chance to step back and re-imagine what a marketing group might actually look like? And then reconfigure it in its entirety to match the customer needs.

It’s a big decision to make and I don’t think many CMOs are doing it. We tend to tinker with what the company already has, rather than start afresh. And, yet the board expects us to do something different. That’s why we got the job in the first place!

It’s a balancing act. In fact, in many ways, reconfiguring the marketing group is a lot like riding traditional motorcycles.

Sometimes it means you don’t take the most direct route – following backroads rather than crowded high-speed motorways. But you get to see things you’d otherwise miss. That applies just as much to wining and keeping customers as seeing the sights.

The writer is Mark Roberts, chief marketing officer of ShoreTel.

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