In case you hadn’t noticed, machines are taking over much of our society. Robots are replacing doctors in hospitals. Self-serve kiosks are supplanting bank tellers and airline ticket counter reps. And more cars are driving themselves (not that many people are buying them).
The diminished role of the individual has also seeped into marketing. Our industry is such a data-driven business that sometimes we lose sight of the fact that data, tools and technology are only as good as the people who use them. I say that, of course, as someone whose own business model revolves around the smart application of data, tools and technology.
The study of human behavior is at the very core of marketing. And successful marketing depends upon communicating with consumers on a personal level in a way that generates sales. Yet, if we look at some of the biggest trends in marketing today, we start to notice how this connection—what I call the human touch—is being removed from the equation.
For example, the industry is awash in so-called “hyper-personalized” techniques that rely solely on Internet browsing behaviors to target customers in increasingly smaller segments of the population. It’s one thing for a marketer to know which items a customer purchased or clicked on last and are likely to purchase or click next; it’s quite another to know who these people are or what they do when they’re not shopping online. In a sense, such extreme forms of data-driven marketing are taking the “person” out of personalization by targeting customers in a strictly algorithmic fashion.
What’s In a Number?
For all marketers, the Holy Grail is achieving relevance with consumers. But what exactly defines relevance? Can it be captured in an algorithm? According to Facebook, it can. Every since the company introduced a formula to evaluate the impact of advertising on its site, industry bloggers have been rushing to provide tips on how marketers can improve their Facebook ad’s relevance “score.” For the uninitiated, this is a number on a scale from one to ten that rates how well the ad has performed relative to its objectives, based on various actions taken (e.g., videos viewed, posts shared or liked etc.).
It’s not that these kinds of metrics aren’t important—of course they are. The bigger question is: Can success in any aspect of marketing be boiled down to a single number or set of numbers?
Allow me to use my own experience as an example. Retail merchandising is a data-heavy discipline that involves scores of metrics related to inventory levels, shelf displays, pricing and promotions. On paper, these data points provide little value in and of themselves; it’s how the shopper perceives a product relative to its competitors in the actual store environment that counts. For that human perspective, one needs a capable set of eyes and ears. After all, it’s one thing to measure, and another to observe what’s going on in the store.
People Matter; Relationships Matter
Marketing is all about strengthening bonds with customers and building better relationships. Retailers, for instance, live or die by the quality of their relationships, both external ones (with shoppers) and internal ones (between store managers and manufacturing clients).
You cannot replace these relationships with a machine. Retailing is a tactile business that requires meaningful personal interaction. Shoppers who get to touch and feel a product through store demos, for example, are far more likely to express interest in or buy that product; there’s no substitute for having an actual person as brand ambassador present in the store. Similarly, a strong relationship between a brand’s reps and store managers produces better merchandising and a more compelling shopping experience throughout the store.
Remember when the biggest buzzwords in marketing were concepts like “one to one” and “relationship” marketing? Well, everything old is new again. Every major retailer today wants to know what works best locally, down to the individual store—if not customer—level. That’s why the human touch is so important. An algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, can’t decipher individual customer preferences in local markets. It’s up to an employee who understands the unique nature of that particular environment to make these kinds of sophisticated connections.
Thanks to Amazon, there’s been a lot of talk lately about the ills of brick-and-mortar retailers. Consider, though, the recent news that Amazon may be planning physical locations on the west coast to provide “click and collect” delivery/pick-up services. This is exactly the type of service that Walmart, Target and other retailers have determined is critical to competing with Amazon. It is quite the ying and yang—and it may be a sign that Amazon is one step closer to establishing its own concrete footprint.
Even this technology giant realizes that marketers must maintain personal connections in order to keep customer relationships going strong. Embrace the changes, yes. But preserve the human touch.