The Rise of the (Marketing) Machines—How to Tame Them

April 14, 2017 Brett Eckrich

It’s no secret that technology has changed the game when it comes to marketing. We all know the customer is now in charge of the journey. Add to this an explosion in engagement channels and content, and marketers find themselves awash in a sea of priorities.

The typical way that we marketers have chosen to deal with this chaotic situation is to buy software platforms to automate large portions of the operational responsibilities and instead focus on content production and metrics management. But what has been lost in this drive towards efficiency is how it affects the consumer—and the damage it can cause to the relationship between a brand and its customers.

To manage this “man in the middle” position, our tend to focus on building an ecosystem of tools that provides customer engagement metrics that we can use to demonstrate return on investment to our C-suite. The issue with this approach is that, while it may create short-term relief, it becomes less effective over time as response rates erode or competitors begin to adapt to our communications strategies.

Embrace A More Human Approach to Technology

Instead of looking at our technology investment operationally, I would like to propose a more customer-centric lens by which to view our platforms and technology ecosystem: we should be focused on the capabilities that are necessary to service consumers in the same way we would if we had the opportunity to meet them face-to-face.

Harte Hanks CMO Frank Grillo firmly believes that our job as marketers is to “bring the human back to marketing” by reacting to the digital cues that consumers are leaving behind in their interactions with our brands. When we do this effectively, we can create a digital experience and overall journey that feels more personal and more human—like it did when marketing consisted of people sitting across from each other, interacting and building a relationship.

This Requires Knowledge of Strategy and Technology

As the Innovation Lead for marketing technology (martech) within Harte Hanks, it falls on my plate to get our existing technology investments aligned with Frank’s vision of more human marketing and fill in critical gaps. The role requires both an understanding of marketing strategy and technical acumen.

This evolving role is becoming critical in all marketing organizations as the lines of who is responsible for technology spending are blurred. Gartner has forecast that 2017 is the year when CMOs will spend more on technology than their CIO counterparts. This presents a challenge because marketing leaders have traditionally come from advertising or product management backgrounds rather than development roles. This leaves them ill-prepared to be able to separate the aspirational messages vendors try to sell them on from the realities of managing a collection of technical tools they need to bring together to achieve a cohesive mission.

Technology vendors haven’t helped the situation. They have mostly built their platforms around central core functions (like Eloqua and Marketo focus on email). The problem is that consumers interact with brands in a much more organic manner and can’t be counted on to behave the way these tool vendors would like them to. While the tools themselves may be operationally efficient, they rarely are architected to handle the consumers hopping across channels and devices, trying to obscure themselves as they complete their initial research, etc.

For example, when I am researching a product or service, I often want my initial interactions with a brand to be anonymous. When I get to a gated piece of content, I often give up and leave the page or enter bogus contact information so that I don’t end up with a deluge of calls and emails from sales. When I do offer up my accurate contact information, I expect it to be used to improve my experience. I do not expect to come back to the site for more content, only to have to fill out the same form again. What marketers often don’t realize is that by disrupting my journey with unwanted forms, misuse of my data, etc., they actually have to work harder to regain my attention later—if they can at all. Technology should be aligned to facilitate a smooth journey across channels and devices, which can’t be done in functional silos.

Your Customer Should Drive Your Martech Strategy

What does this mean to me as I develop Harte Hanks’ technology stack? It means that I constantly must put myself in your shoes (you are, after all, my prospect or client!). I must ask myself if the experience we have put in place is the engagement you expect. If the answer is no, it’s time to ask if we have the all right technology pieces in place—we might have a gap in capabilities that needs filling. It may also be that we have the right capabilities, but haven’t evolved the ecosystem as whole to work to your benefit. At the end of the day, that decision-making process begins by giving you, the prospect or client, a seat at the table in designing the ecosystem.

Use Machines to Make Marketing Human Again

Machines have made us lazy. It has become so easy to reach mass audiences of consumers with digital tools like email, search and display ads that we have become de-sensitized to the impact our never-ending quest for metrics improvement has had on our relationship with consumers.

But machines also have the power to make us human again. It’s our job to bring the human back to marketing—and technology plays a leading role in achieving this vision. To create a martech ecosystem that enables human marketing at scale, companies need to find those few key people that can see the big picture while also understanding the technology. If you don’t have someone in house who can fill that role, look for a partner that can bring that skill set to the table.

The machines have risen, but with the right mindset and team members, it is possible to tame them. It is possible to evolve your technology ecosystem into something you are proud to talk about—rather than something that causes frustration every month when you get the bill.

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