Marketing in the Digital Age

(As originally published in the Kansas City Business Journal.)

Whether your company sells to consumers or businesses, technology has become a key factor and tool in how effectively you reach your market. Recently, the Kansas City Business Journal brought together area marketing experts to share insights about the role technology plays in a business’s overall marketing strategy. Publisher Stacie Prosser moderated the discussion that included how businesses can get the biggest return on their marketing efforts.

Stacie Prosser of the Kansas City Business Journal: How has marketing changed over the past five years and what trends do you see emerging?

Darryl Mattox of Gragg Advertising: Over the past 18 months, the changes in marketing technology have been exceptional, and that’s just going to accelerate. The “marketing funnel” has truly grown, and that has a lot to do with new technology. Geofencing and proximity marketing are great examples of changes technology has brought to marketing. We are now better at reaching our audience with targeted messages specific to their individual needs and wants through this technology. The challenge for the marketer is trying to understand how to make these new opportunities to communicate with our consumers efficient and cost-effective.

There is also a shift away from fragmented marketing toward a more integrated approach because it is more important to look at a full funnel and understand all aspects of the customer journey. Having one holistic view on digital and the more traditional media channels, such as television, print and radio, can increase response in every channel.

A lot of clients ask me what they need to do to be successful. The first question I ask them is how they measure success. Until I understand that, I can’t develop a plan. I need to know where they want to go and what their goals are in order to give them an idea of what an effective marketing strategy will be.

Joey Barnes of DEG: You most certainly need to know what your clients are trying to achieve, and you have to base your marketing mix and the channels you recommend on customer data. When I first started in the business, digital was new. Even back then, we were talking about measuring reach and frequency through a combination of all channels versus in silos. As connected as customers are today, they still drive cars and watch live sporting events. If a brand presents a consistent message across all channels, then it is able to get frequency through multiple touchpoints, and that’s a big change.

Krista Ankenman of TANK New Media: I agree. You need to set goals and understand what success looks like. But it’s also about understanding where your customers’ attention is. For example, because we do a lot of work in the B2B space, we often hear, “We’re B2B; our customers are different.” At the end of the day, if you sell to businesses, you’re still marketing to people. B2B buyers read email, search online, watch videos and spend too much time on mobile devices, just like you do. You have to be where the right people are to be seen and find the right mix to reach your goals.

Phil Singleton of Kansas City Website Design & SEO: One of the bigger changes in marketing has been in demand creation, at least in the last five to 10 years. Advertising was more about trying to create the demand out there and trying to get top-of-mind awareness with your brand so that when people went out to buy, they thought of you first. Demand creation is always going to be out there as well as mass market awareness, but people just don’t go from the traditional forms of outbound marketing anymore. They don’t go from the TV advertisement directly to the phone. They go from the TV advertisement or radio advertisement, wherever that traditional outbound approach is, and then come back to the internet to decide who they think the best choice is. They find information and see who the thought leader is in the space and are drawn in that way.

Somebody always has to do demand creation. We always have to get the word out for new stuff, and that’s always going to be an important part of marketing. But you can’t create the demand and then lose the opportunity when it filters through the internet because that’s the reality of today’s purchasing process. It’s making sure that on that inbound approach you are there to catch your own demand and maybe capture the demand some of your competitors have created.

Barnes: Yes, like you said, consumers want to be able to obtain the information they need without having to make contact with another person. They really want and expect additional information to support their purchase decisions to be made readily available.

Mattox: Even referral marketing has changed. Now a customer’s opportunities and influencers are much broader. Social media and online marketing has changed how buying decisions are being made. Customers now go online to see who is using the product and what their experience has been. What does the website look like? What are others saying about them in online reviews?

Barnes: People seek information not only from the brand itself, but from others like them. Reviews and comments are important. Digital has facilitated the ability for word-of-mouth advertising to multiply, and the results can make or break a brand. In today’s market, it is essential for brands to offer additional services beyond what they are selling to help drive positive feedback.

Mattox: That’s why having such a consistent brand becomes so important. It’s so interesting from a marketing level. We’ve taken word-of-mouth marketing and really started to categorize it. Now we have influencer marketing or advocate marketing, and the approach we have to take for each is unique. It certainly creates a more complicated campaign or structure. Social media has really taken a front seat in marketing right now, but it’s not a stand-alone.

Singleton: The two most valuable companies in the world right now are Apple and Google. They’ve been jockeying for who’s got the biggest market capitalization this year. To me, Apple represents the form factors, the devices that we use to consume digital content. When we go to make purchasing decisions, to look for things in terms of inbound marketing, it really is about mobile devices. Google, on the other hand, is basically a monopoly when we go out to try to find information to consume on all these devices. These are the points of consumption for the market. I think it’s really telling in terms of where marketing has come because five or 10 years ago, those two companies were not at the top of the market capitalization.

Prosser: What is technology’s role in marketing?

Barnes: Technology enables the spreading of the message, the reach. On the other front, it’s what allows us to capture data. Data plays a big part in how we know where people are and how we can market to them with the right message at the right time. To capitalize on the big data phenomenon, you must know how to slice it, segment it and make it actionable. I can’t even imagine marketing without the capacity to collect the information that informs pointed messages, which then incites the action and engagement that we have today. It’s just phenomenal.

You worry, though, about how much data you’ll have to sift through in the future to get to a point that you can exercise an activity on behalf of your clients. That’s probably going to be our biggest challenge in the future, if it is not already for some brands.

Mattox: I agree with you. Technology offers us a much larger variety of opportunities to reach our audience, but technology is really becoming a part of our marketing, as you said, for gathering the data, and even more so for allowing us to analyze that data. It allows us to analyze and understand it much more quickly than we’ve ever done before.

The danger is in paralysis through analysis. A lot of clients look at it, and they want to know the exact numbers. This is an art, and it is a science, but it’s probably a little more of an art. There is not that exact answer out there, and if we wait until we have it, we won’t make any moves.

Ankenman: You have to find a balance to leverage data effectively. As we look at data, we are thinking about the story it tells, analyzing how people are interacting on your site, with your email and other marketing. Today, we can leverage those interactions using automation to move people through the buyer’s journey, from awareness and education to making buying decisions. Modern technology is making next-level marketing automation affordable for more companies.

Barnes: We continuously have more data and insights on our customers than ever before, and the amount of data is only going to grow. This information allows marketers to predict more accurately based on past behavior, influencing future decisions and increasing the level of personalization possible. This means more versions of campaigns and more dynamic content, which can be overwhelming to manage. But hyper-targeting and personalization are proven to yield more return.

Prosser: Let’s talk more about personalized messaging because that is obviously one of the trends. How do you manage those personalized messages for a mass audience?

Barnes: The major irony is while brands want to grow their customer base, they simultaneously want to narrow the focus on that growing base to target individually. The most exciting thing about where we are from a marketing standpoint is in combining big data capabilities with the ability to do one-to-one marketing en masse, which sounds like an oxymoron. But automations and dynamic content capabilities allow marketers to send messages that a specific customer or segments of customers receive.

If you go to your social feed, you are likely to see a very different ad than anybody else. It’s based on your web browsing history, past Google searches and other topics of interest you’ve explored online. If I was shopping on a website based on a shoe size, I will be retargeted with a shoe advertisement with what the seller has available in that size. One-to-one en masse is essentially the ability to serve up that same ad to anybody else looking at that product but with little markers that make them unique, such as size, color or geography. The concept isn’t new. The reality is that technology now allows us to be more pointed.

Ankenman: When it comes to personalization and automation, a more seamless transition between marketing and sales is possible. For instance, knowing that a key prospect viewed specific website pages and watched 95 percent of a video before requesting a quote online can open up a lot of opportunity to provide a more personalized, timely communication, and it improves the entire experience for both buyers and businesses. When you’re thinking about personalization, make sure that you have a strategy first so that you’re sending people messages that make sense. You need to have an idea of where you want to go and what you want to learn, so that you can help move people in the right direction.

Prosser: Back in the old days, we talked about your website as being the front door of your business. Now they can climb in through the window or come in the back door — meaning there are many different ways that a potential customer can access information about a business. With that in mind, how has your advice to clients about websites changed?

Singleton: Websites started out as sites on the web, so they were basically digital brochures, and mainstream market businesses still think of them that way. But really they should be thought of as a marketing platform. Websites should be treated as investments, something you should integrate with the rest of your sales and marketing campaign, and treated as something that can actually produce a return.

Barnes: I strongly believe customers expect websites to provide them with the information they need so that they save time from having to seek out information from other sources. They want to get it straight from the company themselves. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s trustworthy. When you optimize websites — not just for search purposes but to provide value outside of what you already offer — they are great tools for garnering consumer engagement and collecting data. Websites give companies insights into what customers are looking for and the permission they need to serve their customers better.

So I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s taking it that step further and not just being an information source but also being a place of added value. Due to the importance and the investment, we advise our marketing clients to involve IT. The platform is just as important as the content.

Ankenman: Going back to your point about personalization, it’s endless what you can do with your website now, as far as serving up messages and content that relates directly back to that person. It doesn’t have to be this brochure where the message is the same for everybody. It should consistently be changing, pushing the boundaries and serving up educational information that can be specific to what those people want and need.

Mattox: I’m still amazed at how many companies don’t make their website a focus. When I talk to clients, I remind them to not forget who is their customer or audience. The user experience is critical. It’s too easy to go to another company if the user experience fails them or does not deliver on the brand of that company that they sought.

I absolutely agree you need to optimize to the user experience and even to search engines. A lot of companies spend thousands of dollars to create a great site, and then they don’t want to make the investment to make sure it’s found. That’s critical. People out there doing searches are not just using the brand name. They want to see what else is out there. If they are not finding your web site, then they are finding the competition.

Barnes: For many companies, a customer’s first impression is based on their website experience. It’s not someone who answers the phone or greets them in store with a smile. So how do you translate that into a consumable and interactive experience that represents the level of customer service and the tone you want to convey? Often, even if the customer needs to talk to a human, they will still visit your website first to locate a phone number. What they see and how they react to what’s presented on the website sets their expectations.

Mattox: I remind clients that consumers today expect, even demand, a positive experience when it comes to company websites. The consumer’s experience with a website will leave a lasting impression about a company. We need to be able to anticipate what our customers are looking for when they come to our site and provide it in a way that is simple and easy to digest.

Prosser: What are some of the missed opportunities or common mistakes that businesses make with a website or their interactive experience with their potential customers?

Singleton: I think the biggest missed opportunity is what we were talking about before. The website should be your marketing platform, your referral source for everything that you’re doing. Companies post some of their best content on social media where it dies. They should be posting it on their website and sharing that link to draw people back into the marketing automation system.

They need to realize that the tactics aren’t going to work unless you have an overarching, holistic marketing strategy. The only way to do that is by figuring out what the goals of the company are and figuring out who their ideal customer is. Then, you do the big data research to find out the search activity for the ideal customer — what they are searching for and where they are searching for it. Then you build a content marketing plan around that strategy. If you don’t bake that into your overall marketing plan, then you lose a lot of opportunity, and you don’t get to maximize your ROI. The strategy is where it all starts.

Ankenman: I think people just don’t know where to start sometimes, too. They may start out searching for symptoms and just need some help diagnosing their problem. If your website only talks about your products and services, you are assuming visitors already know the solution. Unless you build out helpful content, it’s hard for them to really understand their core problems and eventually see your product or service as a solution to those problems.

Prosser: So Krista, you spend a lot of time in the B2B space. Are there major differences between B2B and B2C?

Ankenman: At the end of the day, we’re still all people.

Prosser: A business doesn’t conduct a search. A person conducts a search.

Ankenman: Exactly. It’s important for businesses to be visible online. I think the biggest difference is usually the buying cycle. B2B businesses tend to have a longer buying cycle. Sometimes, their messages are a little bit more complex, so you may need to target multiple people in one organization. The immediate close is probably not as realistic for many B2B companies as it might be for consumer brands. Buying a $300,000 piece of equipment is not going to be the same experience as buying a pair of shoes online.

How you convey your message throughout a longer buying cycle can help facilitate and move prospects through the journey at the pace that makes sense for them. Someone may be doing research today but may not make a purchase for six months. You need to continuously optimize your website and marketing to tailor messages that bring people back and help nurture them through the process.

Mattox: The idea of marketing can be scary for a lot of businesses. This morning, we’ve talked a lot about understanding the consumer and the psychology of buying behavior. But at its easiest form, marketing actually comes down to economics. For many businesses we should simply ask: “What have you done that worked? Let’s keep doing what works and start to eliminate what doesn’t.”

Marketing is both an art and a science. The science is being able to track results by media channel — digital and traditional — and understanding what is working and what is not. The art is developing and implementing a strategy based on those findings that are efficient and effective.

In addition, I encourage clients to evolve their marketing strategies over time. About 5 to 10 percent of their marketing budget should be spent on testing new marketing strategies and media. Marketing is always evolving and so should we. Keep testing new strategies. If something new starts to outperform our baseline, it becomes the new baseline; and then we test something else. Again, it becomes really more of an economics or mathematical challenge than just a psychological challenge.

Barnes: I always think it’s critical to not only test the new initiatives and programs you’re going to add in, but to test the programs you plan to continue doing so you can really pinpoint what is working. Knowing what to optimize is just as important as knowing what to redact.

Ankenman: I agree, just because something was working a month or two ago does not mean we should let it go stale. Everything can be improved. You have to be willing to experiment and test to find out how often you should be switching up your creative or tweaking your messaging so you continue to stay fresh and keep people coming to your site.

Singleton: When the ticket value or the stakes of the decision are higher, the company should spend a little bit more time on building educational authority and trust because those people are going to dig deeper. Produce content that is going to help you demonstrate, prove and educate people on why your product is better than the other one. At the end of the day, it all comes down to making yourself the choice. Then, just find the types of marketing investments you use to make that happen.

The traditional ways of building and investing in top-of-mind awareness have changed. I call it the Amazon effect. It’s possible for a nameless and unknown brand that has 200 great in-depth reviews on Amazon to steal a sale away from a brand that has been around for 30 years and spends millions of dollars on advertisements. It has evened the playing field for smaller businesses.

Mattox: I completely agree; the internet has been a great equalizer for small and mid-sized businesses. The smaller companies with limited resources can still have a big presence online. If they have a user-friendly website with a positive user experience, and if they’ve optimized it so people can find it, then they can reach more consumers with a strategic and on-target message.

Prosser: Let’s talk a little bit about social media and the importance of reviews. Barnes: Marketing and public relations now work together in a different way than they ever have before. Customers rely on online reviews, so they can be a great marketing tool. But to prevent public relations issues, you have to keep a close eye on the feedback and make sure you are responding to both the positive and negative comments. Managing all the locations reviews are being placed for any given brand at scale in an affordable manner is the challenge. But it can’t be ignored. With or without a company facilitating feedback or collecting reviews on its own, it will happen without permission.

Singleton: Reviews are probably one of the most powerful things that are out there today. But the whole system is geared to collect negative reviews. Very few people are incentivized to write a review about paying a fair price for something. They expect to have that. However, if you tick somebody off, they will make it their life’s work to give you all sorts of reviews on all sorts of different platforms.

You basically have to take control of your own reputation, or it will take control of you at some point. How do you do that? The hard part is just asking. You have to have a system. You have to be tenacious and persistent and make it part of your routine. When you see a company out there with a hundred or 200 reviews, it’s because they are on it. They make it part of the process.

Prosser: How has the new generation of business owners, primarily millennials, changed marketing?

Singleton: I read a lot of snarky comments about millennials online, about their work ethic and sense of entitlement and so forth. But I’m seeing younger business owners who are genetically engineered to be great digital marketers. You start talking to them about traditional outbound methods, and they say, “That’s not how we buy.” They jump right into digital. They know the value of a website, they know the value of social media, and they know the value of pay-per-click advertising. Millennials are really changing things because they’ll do marketing the right way from the beginning with less marketing dollars, and they’re stealing market share away from the players that have been around for a long time.

It’s kind of a micro level of what’s already happened to the internet in general. All of these younger guys, like Airbnb and Uber, have come in and totally flipped traditional markets on their head and taken the market share, and they are doing it with a lot fewer assets. They don’t have any inventory, but they’re at the point of the sale. The same type of thing is happening with some younger business owners. It just seems like they’re really going to start to inspire more change because digital is all they know.

Ankenman: Definitely. An increasing number of millennials have the responsibility of researching purchases in the B2B space, so we do see a shift in how businesses are buying. We often recommend a combination of inbound and targeted outbound marketing since we do integrate closely with sales teams. At some point during the buying cycle, the sales team becomes engaged to work the deal and close the sale. In our experience, millennial buyers do extensive research and are very well educated before they’re actually having conversations with the sales team.

Barnes: With millennials, the moniker of entitlement often gets brought up. If they are in fact entitled, doesn’t that just mean as marketers we are required to meet their high expectations? I think so. So what do they expect? Relevant and timely messages. We can do that. They aren’t offended when they see an advertisement for something they were searching for on another site. They count on it to remind them of where they were in the buying cycle for their purchase. They want us to make an offer and make them reconsider. They want us to work for it. If we would look at this way, we can get to the root of what really motivates and drives them, and we can take advantage of it, frankly.

Mattox: That’s an important point. Millennials have changed where and how we consume information. However, these changes are not universal, and not everyone has adapted to, or adopted, the changes. For example, selling to an older demographic is a different strategy. The millennial idea of how to market isn’t going to necessarily work for all groups, and that creates a marketing challenge. It goes back to knowing who your audience is.

This knowledge is important when considering social media as well. Social media has become an important part of what we do. It’s a part of most marketing strategies, or at least it should be. Social media can play an important role in the buying decision. However, for most consumers, it’s more of an influencer than it is an actual point of sale. There’s not a lot of direct return on investment. It is where we go to get ideas of what we might want to do or buy. However, in the end, the consumer will visit a company’s website to make a purchasing decision. Millennials operate, and want their information, very differently. We need to know our audience and then be where they are with a message that is interesting and on target to their needs and wants.

Ankenman: I think the idea of instant gratification has really spread beyond millennials, too. The Amazon Prime effect of “I want it tomorrow” has seeped into everything, and we have to be able to respond to that from a marketing perspective.

Prosser: Branding has been a solid piece of advertising strategy for a very long time, and now with so many ways to measure ROI and be interactive with your clients, what role does branding have?

Ankenman: It’s the foundational piece. Everything is built on branding. If you don’t have consistent messaging, if you don’t have your beliefs and values of your brand figured out, it’s hard to do any of the other pieces. You have to have that foundation.

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