We’re in a time of tremendous health, political, and social unrest. It’s easy to get swept away in hyperbole, but when entire economies get shut down and people around the world have to suddenly and drastically alter their everyday habits, its genuinely appropriate to say that consumer behavior is changing.
It’s the job of marketers to reflect on such change and to evaluate how best to move forward. Yet, it’s clear that many marketers are using a transactional perspective to reflect on their customer interactions and relationships. This approach may not necessarily be fit for purpose in a world where consumers are putting brands’ social and political affiliations under increased scrutiny. Consumers are seeking out organizations that reflect their values, and customer segmentation strategies need to evolve appropriately. Now is the time to focus on the consumer, not their transactions.
The State of Play
We as marketers have long used demographic data and then got really smart and added psychographic data. Now, there’s so much data around (clicks, visited sites, abandoned carts, and so on), it can be overwhelming. That data, however, is commonly impersonal, which doesn’t necessarily reveal someone’s belief systems or values. That’s a problem, as values-centric consumers are increasingly looking to spend their money with brands that authentically reflect their beliefs
It’s just as well, then, that regulation, which is sweeping away ineffective data scraping and inference tactics, is forcing a reassessment of data collection practices in general. High-profile examples of companies using data where they shouldn’t be are plentiful and have brought the issues to the forefront of societal consciousness. In Illinois, Facebook is currently settling a lawsuit after it collected biometric face data via its Tag Suggestions tool without any notice or consent. Anyone impacted can fill out a claim form and get between $200 and $400. These are the kinds of things we’re increasingly hearing about and there’s a data privacy backlash as a result.
If people know what their data is being used for—and we’re not talking about 30-page privacy policies here—they’re more willing to share information than marketers often assume. This relies on absolute transparency and a foundation of trust. It also requires consumers to proactively volunteer their data, and the only way that’s ever going to happen is if marketers learn to ask the right questions.
Marketers are going to have to become much better at asking questions. It can’t be “here are 50 things we want to know about you,” which is all about “me, me, me the marketer.” It’s got to be about what the consumer wants to share and for their benefit.
Relevancy is Absolutely Essential
Yes, brands need to be asking for information that enables them to better serve the consumer and cannot afford to be too trivial or contrived; but sometimes the most important information may be less obviously important.
Political allegiance is a topical example. Politics is highly polarized in the U.S. right now and it’s something people feel extremely passionately about. Whether someone is a Trump or Biden supporter may seem irrelevant to most brands, but in some cases, it will actually be useful and something that people want to proactively share. Why is this important? People aren’t just expressing their political opinions on the ballot anymore. When it comes to casting a vote for who they will and will not support, they’re choosing to vote with their dollars, too. It’s a deeper level of consumer behavior understanding, but one that has traditionally been difficult (and dangerous) to try and infer without having the consumer volunteer such information.
The point is that sometimes there are things consumers just want to express and share, and all organizations have to do is facilitate and gain valuable insight when they do. The right questions are not necessarily the ones marketers want to ask, but those that consumers want to answer. Determining these questions is trial and error, and the only way it works is if consumer data is treated as a privilege, rather than a value asset.
This is going to be a skill many marketers have to learn. Lots of marketers have been revenue-focused and, whether or not they like to admit it, see consumers as a means to an end. There needs to be an inversion that puts consumers first and revenue second.
Few organizations do this well at the moment. One only needs to look at cookie banners, which are little more than a legal way for brands to cover themselves from a regulatory standpoint. They rarely promote any level of engagement or any real value beyond that.
However, there are new and creative methods of data collection that are generating great results. Gamification is one interesting approach because it’s completely aligned to the shift marketers need to make. Brands can collect information from consumers in a way that’s engaging and fun. Data exchange can be incentivized, adding motivation and appropriate value exchange, and the experience of giving data can also be made inherently enjoyable.
The opportunities, of course, vary greatly depending on business and industry. A mattress retailer, for example, is not going to have the vast engagement opportunities that frequently visited grocery stores are. But in the industries with frequent touch-points, the opportunities are huge, especially right now. As so few have truly nailed the approach, there is a real competitive advantage to be had.
Of course, working on getting the data is only part of the battle. It means little without application. Imagine a gas station company capitalizing on a game people already play at the pump as they try to hit exact numbers (clicking over to $20 worth of fuel exactly, rather than spending $19.99 or $20.03, for example). The station could reward customers for achieving that feat and in the process collect data on anything from refill frequency and gas station location to in-station purchases and choices of potential rewards. It’s all within reach and could help build a picture of the customer by which to better tailor the experience. For example, segmenting customers by loyalty to a specific station tells the organization something valuable about what might be more helpful and applicable to each user.
These are all levels of sophistication that can add value to businesses when done with customers’ explicit consent and when an appropriate value exchange has been established. It shows the incredible potential we’re talking about here.
All of this is a lot of work, of course; but the reward of better getting to know your customers will pay off significantly. Once marketers embrace places where they can test what they’re doing, then prove it on a small scale, they’ll be able to build a bigger business case. This is also another bonus of gamification: It allows you to take a small sample size, experiment, tweak, and try again.
Marketers must tackle changing consumer data needs and be creative. They need to find ways to engage in meaningful interactions that enable them to tease out the information they not only need, but also that consumers genuinely want to share with them.
Kathy Hecht, an experienced multichannel direct marketing executive with over 25 years of experience, is founder and head of brand strategy at Blue String Marketing. She brings a collaborative approach to all engagements and is committed to the success of her clients by building a consumer-first foundation that supports revenue goals. Prior, Kathy was CMO of Silver Star Brands, where she shifted the company’s email strategy to incorporate far more demographic and behavioral segmentation. Through initiatives such as this, Kathy reduced the company’s marketing spend by more than 10 percent, while also growing sales. Kathy has also held marketing leadership roles at Acxiom and American Greeting Cards.