05/20/2013 06:06 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Digital Marketing and the Consumer Experience

Reading through the Asia Digital Marketing Association Yearbook 2012 recently, got me thinking about a colleague who carried out market research projects in the region in the early 1990s. He tells tales of focus groups with local consumers in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia back in the days before mobile phones and digital everything.

How much useful information emerged from a few dozen people chatting over tea and soft drinks for a couple of hours? Compared with what was available back then, it was quite a lot; on the other hand, compared with what's available now, it was nothing. As a recent Clickz.Asia article noted, consumers in Hong Kong alone now generate 23 Terabytes of data every 10 minutes. Fortunately there are analytics wizards to make all that data usable; the ADMA Yearbook is a great example of what they can do.

With the growing volume and sophistication of data available, we can look forward to creating effective marketing programs that are ever more powerfully attuned to consumers' needs. A recent McKinsey article about "on-demand marketing" describes a not-too-distant future of systems, technologies and messaging combining to create high-quality consumer experiences. Many of the technologies are already available and in place, but what about the consumer experience?

The newsletter syndrome

Back in 1999, Seth Godin popularised the notion of "Permission Marketing." Marketers would send communication to only those consumers who had shown an interest in a product, thereby explicitly or implicitly giving permission for communication. This was presented as a departure from forms of "interruption marketing" such as advertising; Permission Marketing was supposed to be less intrusive for consumers, and more effective for marketers.

At its best, today's email marketing is Permission Marketing. The figures from a recent global study are impressive -- particularly comparing APAC with results from the USA, Canada and EMEA. Our region scored the highest Unique Open Rate (mean 31.5 percent vs. Overall 19.7 percent), the highest Opens per Opener (2.56 vs. Overall 1.95), the highest Click-Through Rate (7.1 percent vs. Overall 3.6 percent) and average Unsubscribe Rates (0.26 percent vs. Overall 0.25 percent). Apparently APAC consumers are especially receptive.

Those are certainly impressive figures for marketers but what do they mean in terms of consumer experience? We're all familiar with filling in personal details on websites in order to receive the information we need or the products we want to buy; giving an email address has become just part of the process. Yet in person, offline, how many consumers would accept having to give the same details to a sales assistant before they're allowed to buy? Online in many cases it's no email, no deal; offline in a store, it's not at all popular.

Most consumers online accept that they have to give their email address, especially on sites that they use frequently; having an account log-in speeds things up. Some may even take the trouble to read the opt-in/opt-out choices; they check a box to acknowledge that they've read and agree to the Terms & Conditions because they have to, but who actually reads them? As a result of all this, they get what they came for at the time, but they get more than they wanted in the future; their details are added to the database. Strictly speaking, they have given site owners permission to email them. However, unless they are systematic, they are unlikely to remember which websites they have signed up to, which boxes they checked and whether they gave permission for "selected partners" to mail them too. Over time, the more they shop online and explore websites, the more updates, exclusives, special offers and newsletters will be accumulating in their inbox, along with whatever spam slips through their ISP filters.

There may be some consumers, especially in APAC, who dutifully read every piece of email marketing they receive, and carefully consider what it offers them. Even so, I strongly suspect that the great majority ignore most of it, and delete it sooner or later. Some may even go to the trouble of unsubscribing.

Time to improve the consumer experience

As marketers we love finding ways to enhance the targeting and response rates of our messaging; we celebrate when we devise approaches to improve the scores of our initiatives; we are committed to developing digital tools that yield measurably better ROI on our clients' marketing spend. At the same time, I believe we should also be asking ourselves whether consumers' experience has been similarly improved. I don't think it has; on balance over the past decade, brands and marketers have benefitted more than consumers from the great developments in marketing.

We now have even more ways to deliver "Interruption" marketing communication in broadcast and print media: that's good for marketing. At the same time, in a multi-channel environment where consumers can pick and choose, we have to earn their attention by making the interruption more rewarding for them; we have to make the messaging as interesting and relevant as possible: that's good for consumers. Meanwhile in the "Permission" model of digital marketing, we assume that consumers have happily volunteered to receive our messaging, which we can push it in high volumes at low cost: that's good for marketing. However, I suspect many consumers keep receiving the emails more out of passive inertia than active interest, and regard a lot of them as digital clutter: that's not so good for consumers.

To help our clients grow and flourish, we're duty bound to experiment with ways to grab consumers' attention, and sell to them. At the same time, we are also committed to enhancing consumers' experience of our clients' brands. As ever, marketers tread a fine line between selling and branding. The upside now is that digital gives marketers more scope for creating the sort of experiences that are good for both a brand and its consumers; the downside is the risk of focusing too much on the numbers and forgetting the experience of the consumers they represent.