Over the weekend, I had a chat with my long-time colleague and marketing innovator Giovanni Rodriguez, who is in the middle stages of developing a new framework for helping to redesign marketing departments. Based on a concept that born in the computer industry called "exception handling," Rodriguez is advocating that marketers strategically leverage the abundance of customer data that is now available to liberate themselves to focus do what they do best.
As understood in the IT world, exception handling "is the process of responding to the occurrence, during computation, of exceptions - anomalous or exceptional conditions requiring special processing." Embracing the concept, tech-savvy business executives have begun to view exception handling as a helpful construct for managing business processes to reduce the costs of business exceptions--i.e., things that the company needs to but do not fit in the normal course of business ("business as usual") - to protect the bottom line. That tech-speak may have been responsible for the spread of the concept is not just interesting but instructive. Technology, in fact, may be what's enabling executives to wring new efficiencies in business processes. Rodriguez recalls hearing management guru John Hagel - his former colleague at Deloitte Consulting and his inspiration for the new twist on the concept - that social technologies are helping businesses address the big exceptions that remain now that technology has automated practically everything else.
Hagel's analysis is eye-opening, and all business executives should take a close look. But, like Rodriguez, I believe they should also look at the opportunity that awaits the latest addition the C Suite: the CMO. For her, exception handling - aided by data, not just social technologies - is not about a conservative effort to manage the bottom line, but a creative endeavor to grow the top.
Exigencies (real time)
Let's start with the things that can easily disrupt a modern marketing machine - and render it ineffective - on any day of the week: a crisis. A growing number of marketing groups are equipping themselves to not only listen in real time but respond, across all relevant channels and devices. More and more, the job of the CMO is to be real-time, all the time. And increasingly, that means understanding what their stakeholders think -- and addressing their concerns -- before things go wrong. But, again, marketers - the great ones at least - are an optimistic, forward-looking bunch. They see real-time exception handling not just from the crisis lens, but from the opportunity lens as well. Think about the Oreo team's celebrated marketing stunt during a Super Bowl when the lights in the stadium went out ("you can still dunk in dark," they tweeted, with artwork quickly rendered for a viral share). While some argue that the tweet was ineffective -- looking only on the reach of the tweet, not its brand-enhancing value -- the marketing world was instantly reminded: real-time is real, and it is here to stay.
From where I sit, the Oreo stunt was another, more important, reminder: a special opps team - that's what Oreo had, under the leadership of the exceptional marketer Bonin Bough - can pay off for those special, exceptional moments. That was Oreo's real innovation, and a number of companies are following it. But there are tech systems that need to be considered if one wants to do this kind of marketing seriously (i.e., measurably). If a company equips itself with a state-of-the-art data management platform, the large bulk of engagement with the customer can be automated, leaving a core team of creative and operatives to focus on the unusual opportunities. Here's a trend I've been tracking: the evolution of the so-called social media center that listens, to the customer data center that is built to respond, with real human beings. Like when a customer has a complaint, and a real human being tries to fix it ... imagine that.
In the end, what we are talking about is the ability that marketers now have to use data - i.e., the first-party customer data they own, augmented by the anonymized third-party data they can obtain in open markets to create persistent, meaningful, and relevant relationships with their customers, wherever they are, on whatever device. Sometimes the interactions are best mediated by machines (technology). Sometimes we need human beings.
It's a bracing message in an age in which we are continually challenged to understand the relationship between man and machine. But the only way to do this economically and with impact is understand how technology can ultimately enable marketers do what they do best - providing profoundly human experiences, while leaving the rest to technology. A number of CMOs already know that. But I've got feeling that many more will know soon.
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