Marketing's post-digital age

Marketing is dead; long live marketing!

Published: Jan 6, 2017

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Image: Shutterstock

As a marketing academic I’ve witnessed over recent years a massive change in what marketing is and how marketers approach this important strategic function. Yes, many of the fundamentals still matter – such as identifying customer segments and carefully targeting the desirable, valuable ones. However, we are now at the point where marketing is primarily a technology-enabled and data-driven discipline. ‘Digital marketing’ is not something that sits on its own, in a silo. Everything we do in marketing is now digital to a certain degree, if not entirely so. We are at the point where ‘digital marketing’ is just ‘marketing’. And that means a lot of fresh challenges, as well as opportunities, for marketers.

We are now in what I call a ‘post-digital’ age. Gone are the days of separating ‘online’ and ‘offline’ marketing. For example, smart retailers have abandoned antiquated ideas about separating their bricks-and-mortar stores and their ecommerce businesses. Now they talk about themselves in an integrated, ‘omnichannel’ manner. Why? Because this reflects reality – there’s no such thing as a purely ‘online’ customer or a purely ‘offline’ one. Similarly, the days of thinking of ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ media are starting to fade into a distant memory. And the idea that only some customers are ‘tech-savvy’ is now laughable – all customers are technology enabled, connected, and, increasingly, ‘always on’. The new reality of marketing in this post-digital age is that technology plays a role in all facets of marketing. Whether you’re selling dresses to teenagers, knitting supplies to grandmothers,  or jet engines to aircraft manufacturers, there’s technology involved.

The technology driving  marketing in the post-digital age is sometimes obvious, but other times not. We all are familiar with two big technologies that have shaped a lot of the transformation of marketing: smart, connected mobile devices (such as the iPhone), and  social media (such as Facebook). These technologies are platforms that have enabled all of us – as individuals  – to be always on, constantly connected. Some of the other technologies might be less obvious but are no less important. At the heart of this is data – lots of it. Huge amounts of data are captured on what customers do (thanks in large part to mobile devices and social media) and this is helping marketers better define their customer segments and more precisely target individuals with, ideally, relevant information and products. The ‘Internet of Things’ is also producing massive streams of data that can also inform decisions – from data coming from our personal smart devices on our wrists and in our homes, to data coming from big industrial machinery in factories. This technology not only provides new ways for customers to seek and share information, and opens up new ways for marketers to engage customers; but also makes data-driven approaches to marketing strategy and execution essential.

What does all this mean? It means that we have a lot of complexity to face. This is, of course, challenging. It is all the more challenging because the technology landscape is constantly changing, thus making it hard to keep up with it. And while technology has been a big part of marketing for some time now (remember that old ‘digital marketing’ thing?), the pace of technological advancement and consumer adoption of new technologies has never been as rapid as it is right now.

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So what can marketers do? How can marketers smartly and effectively turn these challenges into new opportunities and winning strategies? These questions led us at Oxford Saïd to develop the Oxford Strategic Marketing Programme. This is an open executive education programme, which will run from 3 to 7 July 2017, that aims to help managers and executives make sense of this post-digital age of marketing. The goal is to offer a fresh perspective on strategic marketing that will change the way participants think about their current challenges and the responses they might make.

In advance of this new programme, I thought I’d list some of the key opportunities and challenges, and give some examples of what we will cover in the programme.

Exciting (and difficult) opportunities
Marketers can connect directly with customers and target them with greater precision. Digital communications channels, particularly social media, allow for richer and deeper engagement with customers. Marketers can get better feedback in real time, have conversations, and build stronger relationships with customers. One of the case studies we’ll use in the Oxford Strategic Marketing Programme features the Las Vegas-based alt-rock band Imagine Dragons. We tell the story of how this band developed into the international, arena-packing superstars that they now are by focusing heavily on fan engagement – and how they used technology and, particularly, social media to do this.

Communications can be personalised, as can services, products, and overall customer experiences. Another case study we use looks at the impact of Disney’s MyMagic+ platform, featuring an RFID-enabled wristband together with a website and mobile app, currently in place at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Disney invested US$1 billion in building a platform that combines digital channels, social media, mobile apps, and Internet of Things wearable connected devices to help them improve – and personalise – the guest experience in their Orlando parks. They cut waiting times by 30% and increased park capacity. And this is just the beginning, it seems, for now they will combine technology and real-world experiences to deliver the magical Disney World experience they are renowned for.

Thanks to the amount of data created digitally, and increasingly sophisticated analytical techniques, you are able to know more about your customers than ever before. We see how this is being used in a wide variety of ways. On the Oxford Strategic Marketing Programme we’ll hear about data from one of the world’s pioneers in customer/shopper data – dunnhumby. We’ll also look at how real-time data from social media is being used by airlines such as Delta Air Lines and KLM to deliver enhanced customer service and support experiences to travellers in a manner that is both efficient (lower cost) and effective (higher satisfaction) than alternatives such as call centres. And of course we will think about revolutionary approaches to digital advertising and media buying: programmatic ad buying.

Tough challenges
The majority of companies are not set up to operate in this new age of marketing. And many of the conventional approaches to marketing just don’t work anymore. For example, in an Oxford Saïd study, we looked at nine brands (ranging from some of the world’s best-known brands to smaller local brands) and what they do with their Facebook marketing, or ‘content’ (i.e., brand posts). Conventional wisdom would suggest that Facebook, like many other social media platforms, is another place for brands to advertise themselves. And it is. However, it comes with one big caveat – don’t make your content feel like advertising. We found that posts that had all the hallmarks of advertising, such as being persuasive and having a very clear, polished message, actually backfired in terms of generating engagement in the form of likes, comments, shares, and click-throughs to brands’ websites. Instead, branded content that felt more ‘social’ – more consistent with the tone of Facebook – performed better.

Jumping on a technology bandwagon is tempting, but without a strong marketing purpose it is often a waste of time. But how do marketers figure out if and when they should trial a new marketing technology or digital channel? A good example of this challenge lies in the constant push for brands to try new social media platforms. Currently, Snapchat is all the rage for brands. But should you really have a Snapchat strategy? At some point maybe you should, but how do you decide when to jump in? In the teaching and consulting work I do this comes up all the time (just replace Snapchat for whatever other platform is the current flavour of the month). It is an important challenge and not as easily addressed as one might think. Doing something for the sake of it is rarely a good idea, but sometimes testing the waters to learn and develop transferable knowledge can be worth it.

Asking people to chime in on a public conversation means that you are resigning control, and things can blow up in your face. How do you manage this? Or, better still, prevent negative consequences? There’s always a good (and typically amusing) example for this. A recent one is when the UK Natural Environment Research Council launched a social media campaign inviting people to suggest names for their new research ship. Seems pretty safe, no? Well, someone jokingly suggested Boaty McBoatface, which ended up topping the poll, although the name has now been consigned to a ROV on the vessel. Another example – probably my favourite – is a few years old now. McDonald’s ran a campaign on Twitter inviting people to tell stories of their happy times at McDonald’s using the hashtag #McDStories. One can easily imagine the kinds of things that people wrote, certainly not the happy, family-friendly anecdotes McDonald’s would have hoped for.

These are just a few examples of interesting opportunities and challenges in marketing’s post-digital era. Everything involves technology and the challenges begin with the always on, constantly connected customer. It is an exciting time, but one that requires careful thought and dedicated time and effort, laying the foundation for a successful transformation of your organisation’s marketing into the post-digital age. We are only just beginning to see the importance of other new approaches, such as influencer marketing – using vloggers, bloggers, and other content creators or intermediaries on social media to create buzz around a product or brand. Major global brands are shifting from conventional advertising and media-based approaches towards using influencers extensively. But how should this be done? And is it necessarily the right thing to do?

Ultimately, things are moving very fast. If you can’t keep up, you’re going to lose. This is the future of marketing. Fast-paced, data-driven, technology-enabled, customer-centric marketing is here to stay. Winning marketing strategies in the future will be about how to navigate this complex and constantly shifting landscape, and visionary leadership will become ever more important. These are exciting – but uncertain – times. Marketing (as we know it) is dead… Long live marketing!

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Said Business School, University of Oxford. The article originally appeared in the School e-magazine, THEWORLD@OxfordSaid. http://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk]

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