Rethinking Channels: What Marketers Need to Know to Change the Way They Interact with Customers

03/13/2017 05:36 pm ET

Customer centricity is the key to bridging the divide between channel silos for marketers today, requiring both structural, organizational change and technology innovation alike

What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

For many marketers, rethinking channels is just as cyclical of a thought process as answering that age-old adage – and equally as difficult to wrap their heads around. Does technology adoption spur organizational change? Are structural changes required before technology can work its magic?

The answer, of course, is “it depends.”

Before you write me off, hear me out: rethinking channels is a mission with no expiration date. There’s no silver bullet to get there, but what matters is that it is both a process and paradigm shift. Striving toward this goal, the task is never finished – one that begins and ends with customer centricity.

To get started, marketing teams need to layer on capabilities that support this goal and align business objectives with customer behaviors and preferences. When I discuss this topic more broadly with my peers, the question always becomes: “How will existing channel operations be affected?”

The answer isn’t always obvious. What we do know is that channels aren’t going away – at least any time soon – but they’re going to evolve. You’re always going to have an email marketing strategy in parallel with website and digital teams. New channels like voice will enter the arena. The important thing is, you’ll continue to maintain both the talent and the technology to support these complementary operations: you need a channel expert to understand the nuances of optimizing open rate as much as a specialist to keep your digital ads humming along.

What needs to happen, then? Companies need to make these channels – and the very real structural, operational and technological divisions that separate them – invisible. Easier said than done, right? Nonetheless, this is the critical piece of the puzzle. There must be a common denominator between the concurrently running systems and teams: an underlying foundation of customer centricity that runs fluidly as a conduit between channels and as a gut check that actions are being tailored to suit individual customer needs.

In other words, there needs to be oversight that steps in – using machine learning logic as well as incentives and new team resources – to ensure that while each respective channel is marching along to its own plans and goals, there are measures in place to override these activities when they are in conflict with one another. The customer journey must be preserved above all other campaigns. For this to be successfully executed, the customer-first principle must be centralized within the modern enterprise.

Though companies are grappling with exactly how this looks in practice, there are some agreed upon best practices that can make this vision a reality:

1) Agree to top-down investments in shared goals. For customer-centricity to take hold, the c-suite must be on board, including the purse strings. Whether investing in a new team, acquiring new technologies for omnichannel content, aggregating data, or investing in a new business unit, consensus must start at the top. Senior leadership must communicate shared goals toward customer centricity, as well: an improved feedback score or short-term revenue increase may not be the best – or only – metric for evaluating long-term customer satisfaction, and each executive should have a stake in the ground for CX.

2) Create a dedicated team. Having a cross-functional team that is dedicated to the customer experience makes more possible when rethinking channels. As the sounding board for new ideas, they can play devil’s advocate to channel-specific decisions that may create a quick revenue lift but that are, ultimately, bad for brand loyalty. Being simultaneously connected to and independent from each channel, a CX team helps create alignment between disparate projects and sets a foundational strategy for other teams to draw upon. Similarly, a "marketing ops” team – like a sales op team – can strengthen cross-channel data management, technology integration, and analytics, serving many parts of the business such as ERP operations and email marketing while bringing together results tracking, in the process.

3) Centralize your data. When looking at cross-channel activity, marketers need to see people rather than datasets. Having access to an individual’s collective data – behavioral, historical, transactional, and social – means that a person’s journey can be extracted from the numbers in a spreadsheet. Different brand interactions pool together to paint the full picture of a customer relationship, so that the future relationship can be properly managed and increasingly personalized. All of the data builds upon itself, so that each interaction is smarter and the company is better equipped for custom response.

4) Create a phased approach to digital transformation. Collecting data is time consuming and requires an upfront investment. To rethink channels, a tiered approach to goals is needed. If you’re investing in new cross-channel technology and infrastructure that you’re building yourself, you may have a long road ahead. If going alone on these initiatives, this may be part of a five-year plan. It’s important to think both short and long term when mapping out digital transformation objectives: as new channels emerge, integration will require longer time to market, which impacts ROI. In the meantime, customers today need to be reached with a consistent brand voice. Quick wins that are thoughtfully employed can allow a technical marketing team to be agile, proving value quickly and building out to more areas of the business as value justifies it. This opens up lines of revenue while continually going back to the drawing board on how to reach the customer in new ways, so that long-term digital transformation initiatives can be worked toward without preventing current innovation from being tested and applied.

5) Add machine learning as a layer on top of execution channels. Machine learning helps companies more clearly see the customer behind the channels. With it, companies can bring to life different propositions at specific points in time, fueling the decisioning power behind a customer-centric approach to marketing. With artificial intelligence, the question of “how” this all can be pulled off is addressed: if individual channel technology is integrated and supported by a single, overarching AI machine, one hand will speak to the other for the customer to receive the appropriate touchpoint as the very tangible result of all of these concerted efforts coming together.

Innovative marketers fiercely believe in applying a “try and fail” methodology to their work: though rethinking channels requires navigating uncharted territory from both an organizational and technological perspective, it also provides a blank canvas for evaluating the effectiveness of marketing campaigns from a new, customer-centric vantage point – and making real-time changes for improvements that meet this goal. If everyone is learning together, marketers can dive right in, testing new strategies within isolated instances to gradually support more personalized, cross-channel initiatives. As customers begin to benefit from these changes, more changes in turn can be made that are based upon proven efforts – moving you closer to a world where the customer is front and center, rather than the channel.

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