Imagine being transported back to the Sixties and having to explain to a stereotypical ad agency executive (like you, I’m imagining Jon Hamm’s character from “Mad Men”) where the battle for eyeballs would be fought and won today. The contrast between the tools in Don Draper’s arsenal and the data-laden, digital-focused tools marketers have available today highlights the profound impact that time and technology have had on our industry.

Today’s era is defined by highly targeted, personalized advertising based on characteristics that brands and businesses can identify about you, me or anyone else on the Internet. The initial delight around a curated advertising experience has been met with recent blowback around data privacy, with Facebook and Wells Fargo serving as two prominent examples. Moreover, this personalized experience may not be as tailored as advertisers make it out to be. Ever notice how your Facebook and Instagram ads focus nearly exclusively on recent search history or the stereotypical set of products that “people like you” might want?

If consumers are going to reject this brand of “personalization,” companies need to now find less intrusive, more authentic ways to connect with customers. Stitch Fix’s “personalized stylist” or Spotify’s annual year-in-review “Wrapped” podcasts stand as particularly memorable examples of this done well.

Don’t get me wrong — both traditional media and digital advertising channels are still important tools in building brand awareness, but they no longer provide the validation of high quality or resonance with consumers. Once upon a time an ad placement in Vogue was an implicit endorsement from the publication, although these days the buying of media has been democratized and made widely accessible — that validation is no longer implied.

While personalization appears to be the dominant trend enabled by the digital age, there’s a second axis to modern marketing that gets plenty of press but isn’t as well-understood as we’d hope — the availability and use of data in modern marketers’ worlds.

We now have access to more data than ever, but what hasn’t changed is how we teach people to use data — in an increasingly messy world, an understanding of the math and statistics to actually use it well is more important than ever, but it’s not a skill set that is often taught to marketers. Complex modeling to truly unpack that problem is a discipline unto itself, and realistically — it’s too complex for most non-enterprise businesses to invest time, money and energy into.

What’s the solution? Follow your customer — listen to them. Give them ways to tell you what motivated their behavior, whether that’s in your selection of advertising channels, surveying them when they’re standing at your cash register or sending surveys after the fact. Chances are that your customers will tell you a different story than the sum of your advertising dashboards — and that’s a problem we as marketers must deal with.

We built Drum around the idea that the way consumers are now validating products and experiences is more reliant on human connection and social endorsement. Influencer marketing is a valuable, recent construct that plays on this idea, although it is limited to those who have established spheres of influence that are large enough to be valuable to brands. Moreover, what brands are purchasing from influencers is still, effectively, digital media rather than conversions.

We think the missing piece to this ecosystem is a digital sales platform, where any person is able to serve as a salesperson (we call them Drummers) for brands of their choosing, and businesses of any size have access to high-quality sales talent. By leveraging Drummer networks to populate the platform with vetted, high-quality businesses, we can solve the authenticity gap for consumers, and by offering true “pay as you go” model that provides a conversion guarantee for businesses.

As I think about building my organization and function in 2020, I’m anchoring on three key themes (in rank order) that I think are essential to differentiate a brand in today’s day and age. These aren’t new, but their ordering certainly runs counter to the CPA, CPL, data-driven and obsessively analytical performance marketing culture that the digital age has fostered:

  • Authenticity: We, like all businesses, need scalable ways to build personal connections with customers by tapping into situational relevance, not just demographic relevance

Sometimes the situational relevance is core to the business model, as is the case with Stitch Fix — Peloton (streamlining the in-home personal training experience with upgraded hardware and a digital flair) and Havenly (tailored interior design deployed at scale) come to mind as others that have built situational relevance into their product.

Other times, the situational relevance is less central to the product and more closely tied to the advertising strategy. Tightly geofencing Display and in-app advertising brings situational relevance to physical shopping (think ads for Home Depot showing up on your phone only when you’re within 100 yards of either a Home Depot or Lowe’s store), while purchase-conscious retargeting can take a boring grocery store trip to purchase taco fixings for dinner gets a touch of delight when a recipe for perfect flank steak tacos greets you when you check your Facebook when you get home.

That said, just because you can leverage data doesn’t always mean you should. Most marketers are familiar with the adage of Target discerning a teenager was pregnant before her father did as a cautionary tale about the perils of personalization. If you work in digital marketing, you’re almost certainly more comfortable with digital tracking, aggregation of information and its manipulation to craft an advertising ecosystem, but you need to decide for yourself how far your customer base is OK with you following this trail. Use the information you gather to deliver authenticity — don’t weaponize it against your customers.

  • Quality: Finding ways to unleash the best of what customers know about the quality of your product is likely more powerful than anything your business can say directly

You can broadcast your own message about quality all you want, but consumers recognize you’ve got a horse in that race — naturally you’ll say you’re selling a high-quality product.

At the same time, consumers are wising up to the idea that online reputation can be manipulated by businesses. On the one hand, free platforms (Google, Yelp, Facebook) are all rife with manipulated reviews, unclear practices (for example: why are some Yelp reviews recommended and others not?). On the other hand, there are myriad pay-to-play platforms that allow businesses to solicit reviews on ostensibly objective third-party sites. Once a review exists on a platform, companies are nearly forced to participate — it’s intelligent for businesses to try to generate honest, good-faith positive reviews on and platform an unhappy customer has taken an opportunity to vent. As a result, companies spend a lot of time and money maintaining an online reputation that consumers trust less and less.

What’s the solve? Personal connections and recommendations actually become even more important in the digital era than they were previously. When you know a business’ reputation can be purchased online, you rely on relationships you trust — people you know and value. Businesses that grow through word of mouth do so because they’ve established strong, meaningful ties with their customers and — importantly — given them a way to use their voice and rewards for doing so in the form of compelling referral programs.

  • Performance: As the digital arms race continues, we will need to find more creative ways to leverage dollars in driving conversions, not just purchasing expensive media.

Find a marketer who hasn’t heard the line about “Half my advertising dollars are wasted; I just don’t know what half,” and you’ll have found one more than I’ve managed to encounter in my time in marketing. We get tired of hearing it, but people keep saying it — because it’s true.

Connecting the dots across the digital and physical ecosystem is hard, and every additional platform that comes to life makes it harder. It’s not realistic to expect most businesses to be able to do complex media mix modeling or multitouch attribution; that’s just not a reasonable investment except for the largest enterprises.

We can build platforms that build customer-centric attribution into their core. Web analytics make click tracking straightforward, and beyond that, platforms that pivot from a cost-per-eyeball to a cost-per-conversion payment structure are inherently more advertiser-friendly. Companies that can take a stand on charging businesses for conversions, not clicks, will find a receptive audience especially among smaller and medium-size businesses.

Whether you can help build those platforms yourself (as we’re working to do here at Drum) or are responsible for marketing in your organization, continue to push partners and advertisers toward pay-for-performance, marketers are the consumers for digital platforms. This is an opportunity to use our voice and keep communicating our desires to platforms.

Whether the dominant forces in the marketing ecosystem look more like Don Draper in the Sixties or Mark Zuckerberg in the Aughts, we still have the same underlying challenge: How do we communicate the value of what we offer to the right people at the right time? Consumers are more aware than ever about how technology is making that possible for companies, and it’s shaping how they respond.

Eric Nalbone is the head of marketing for Drum. He has previously led marketing for Bellhops, a tech-enabled moving company headquartered in Chattanooga, Tenn., and held a variety of roles with Kabbage, eBay and General Electric. Eric resides in Atlanta.

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