most valuable brands

The 2020 Customer Engagement Winners & Losers

Here are the biggest customer engagement winners and losers from a year that produced more than its fair share of stress, confusion and yes – even some accomplishments.

Searching for the appropriate metaphor for this past year without defaulting to the tried-and-true “it sucked”, I’m left with a conflicted sense of awe and disdain, hope and anger over what we’ve been through.  The year forced so many of us – individuals and organizations – through a crucible that none of us were looking forward to and which nobody expected.  Still though, we learned some things.  And those things deserve to be recognized as much for how we learned them as for what they will mean in the future.

In the spirit of the old Marine Corps slogan “Adapt, Improvise, Overcome”, here then, are the biggest customer engagement winners and losers from a year that produced more than its fair share of stress, confusion and yes – even some accomplishments.

Trust Personalization
Consumer Sentiment Analysis Polling & One-Dimensional Surveys
Californians Anyone who does business in California
Asking “Why” Determining “What”
Strava Incomprehensible EULAs (Facebook)
Usable Data Big Data
Adjacent Technologies Closed Ecosystems
Permissioned Data Third-Party Data


Winner: Trust / Loser: Personalization

Interesting how much research has come out supporting the notion that customers appreciate more personalized messaging and the almost equal amount of research decrying it.  The truth, as they say, is probably somewhere in the middle.  Maybe personalization for the mere sake of personalization isn’t a good enough goal if it just becomes another stalking tactic by a different name.  Maybe what customers really want is an understanding of their likes, dislikes, proclivities and tolerances rather than a series of data points that are really just there to attempt another sale?  We had a conversation earlier this year with an executive at a company whose primary service is personalization and who said, and I quote, “oftentimes the personalization juice just isn’t worth the squeeze”. In other words, the cost of deep personalization didn’t justify the end result.  And mind you, this came from someone who saw the data daily.  We’re awarding this one to the idea of trust over the singularly motivated idea of personalization.


Winner: Consumer Sentiment Analysis / Loser:  Polling & One-Dimensional Surveys

Consider that we’ve now been through two entire election cycles where the pollsters got it entirely wrong.  By a mile.  Consider how much research you see (we see a LOT of survey-based research) that is based on either a limited data set or on a series of direct-question methods – neither of which will produce bankable results.  Although they may be statistically valid, the premises and the survey designs are so simplistic as to render a large portion of them pretty much useless.  On the other hand, there are historically proven consumer sentiment analyses which, while they are more difficult to execute and therefore, often more expensive, triangulate what customers (and voters) are actually thinking, feeling & doing.  We’re awarding this one to Consumer Sentiment Analysis with the strong hope that brands and major media outlets will finally come to their senses and ditch outdated polling methods – and their purveyors – once and for all.


Winner: Californians / Loser: Anyone who does business in California

Let me explain.  First there was GDPR, then there was CCPA and then there was Prop24, and then there was a different version of CCPA, and then there was yet another revision to that revision of CCPA – all while the California Attorney General had announced that there were beginning full enforcement of those rules.  It’s not unusual for legislation to get out in front of enforcement but it is unusual for that enforcement to begin while the principles underlying that legislation aren’t even set yet.  Side note:  Take a look at Prop 24 when you get a few moments.  It’s not just a set of rules layered on top of existing CCPA laws, on the contrary, its an entirely different framework that has the potential to make doing business with Californians prohibitively risky.  We’re giving this one to Californians because they deserve better data privacy protection.  But we’re giving a Bronx cheer to the California legislature for ham-handing it.


Winner: Asking “Why”/ Loser: Determining “What”

We have the luxury of talking with a large number of consultants and executives who face strategy-level issues and who are charged with strategy-level changes.  One of the most common themes running through these conversations is the tendency of large organizations to jump to “what” solutions before recognizing and understanding the “why” of the underlying problem.  Mind you these are unusually smart people, fully capable of critical thought and high-level analyses, but between the internal pressures common at those levels and the pace at which organizations are forced to operate, many of these people simply don’t have the luxury or frankly, the toolset to enable strategic curiosity.  We’re putting “Why” in the win column for its ability to uncover and solve for things that “what” simply can’t.


Winner: Strava / Loser: Incomprehensible EULAs

We’ve addressed this several times this past year in hopes of enlightening corporate legal departments on the benefits of engendering genuine consumer trust (see above) but there still remain only a small few that have embraced that principal – and none more-so than Strava.  We dare you to actually read the End-User-License-Agreement (EULA) for any of the apps on your phone, or any of the software updates on your Apple or Windows laptop and not come away confounded, perplexed, confused, vulnerable and maybe even a little angry.  Those are natural responses to being strategically intimidated.  They are also diametrically opposed to any of the brand affinity and brand loyalty initiatives that those same companies spend millions to create.  And then there is Strava (and companies like them) who have found that being open, transparent and even-handed in their approach to customer privacy can actually be good for business.  Clear win for Strava (and companies like them).


Winner: Usable Data / Loser: Big Data

We’re long past the days of terrabytes and petabytes, now we’re speaking in terms of yottabytes and brontobytes.  Remember all the times you heard the phrase “Data is the new gold”, or its variant, “Data is the new oil”?  Well, it’s not.  Data is an asset, for sure but data is also a liability.  The gold is in the insight and that’s a much different proposition than harvesting and archiving reems of data for what it COULD produce.  Smart marketers don’t need all the data – just the right data.  Some friends from Forrester are fond of saying it like this: “Companies are drowning in data but starved for insight”.  Aside from the associated costs of acquisition, the costs of storage, it’s inherent depreciation and decay, the growing risks and liabilities associated with its security, doesn’t it make more sense to just take what you can actually use?  Usable data for the win!

Pro tip:  Beware of ornametrics – often disguised as useful, even impressive achievements but provide nothing in the way of actionable, directional or instructive guidance.


Winner: Adjacent Technologies / Loser: Closed Ecosystems

“The cloud suites don’t have the DNA to be future-proof”.  That’s an actual quote from one of the executives we spoke with this year, and it echoes the sentiment of dozens of others.  No – we’re not shaming the clouds for what they’re not, but we are shining a spotlight on customer-insight and customer-activation ecosystems that are natively-designed to be extensible, flexible and data agnostic.  There is a big difference between a system that grows its capabilities through acquisition versus a network of creative, agile, and motivated players that can develop bespoke solutions at scale.  One is a conglomeration of often incompatible or, to be more generous, less-than-perfectly-compatible acquired components while the other is more of a living organism that can learn and grow as needed.  We’re giving this one to Adjacent Technologies.


Winner: Permissioned Data / Loser: Third-Party Data

By now third-party data is almost a trope.  “Wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole”, “Too risky”, “It’s a bitter pill but one we need to swallow” – you get the point.  Third-party data has become the bottom of the bowl of chips at a party that already ended. But it’s easy to get caught-up in the swirl of hype around first-party data and the freshly-coined “zero-party” data as the latest new & improved acquisition methods but those terms only speak to the source of the data and not the nature of it.  On the other hand, terms like “permissioned-data” and “consented acquisition” are emerging as more qualitative approaches that are based on mutual value exchanges and expectations of trust (see item 1 above) and transparency.  Clear winner: permissioned data.

Photo by Ariel on Unsplash.

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