Article

Barney Larkin
Barney Larkin 25 February 2019

Marketers Must Get Out From Behind Their Dashboards And Understand Consumer Context

Your brand's online performance is dipping and you’re under pressure to come up with answers. There could be many reasons why, from increased competition and market disruptors to negative PR, social media commentary and the rise of ethical consumerism. But which is it, or which combination is it?

When the slide starts to happen, you've got to find out ‘why’ and act fast. The rot sets in quickly and doing nothing is not an option. So how do you get to grips with why something is happening and why your customers aren't buying into your brand any more?

The data problem

Because of the huge impact of digital, marketers are quite literally drowning in data at the moment. There’s an excellent summary of the issues facing the industry in 2019 by John Koetsier, that show just how much influence this channel has exerted. There are so many performance metrics and dashboards associated with big data, that decisions based on an understanding of the world through this data are nigh on impossible to make. It’s true to say that data is king, but the heart rules where consumers and brands are concerned. And you can't hope to solve that conundrum until you understand consumer context.

2018 saw a concerted call from CMOs directed towards their marketing and brand teams to better understand their consumers. The CMO of P&G, Mark Pritchard, said in March that 'We need P&G people much closer to the consumers they serve and we need fewer project managers and more brand entrepreneurs. This means renewed partnerships to work with agencies, not through them. We’ll pay for what creates value for consumers and discern what work should be done by P&G people versus agency people.' Put simply, there are now too many touch points between brands, their agencies and the consumers they serve. P&G cut their digital ad spend by $200M in 2017 and increased their reach by 10%. In 2019 they're continuing to invest in technologies that deliver reach and useful consumer experiences. Then, at the end of the year in November, the resounding message at the Forbes CMO summit was that brands need to be more human-centric, again highlighting the need to move away from the purely transactional, towards the relational.

So the question is, why are brands and agencies STILL not working as hard to try and understand consumer context as much as they are trying to measure and analyse clicks and online behaviour? And anyway, how sustainable is data harvesting and processing online given recent privacy legislation?

The data solution

Seth Godin puts it like this ‘Digital marketing creates and requires data. But just having data isn’t going to change anything. Data must be accurate and have context to be actionable. Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.' In business, we sometimes need to take stock, shake ourselves down and ask some fundamental questions on what we’re doing. Marketers, brand experts, brand strategists, designers, CX and UX people need to ask the following questions of their consumers and customers on a continual basis:

Why are those people doing that?

Why are my customers buying that brand? 

Why are people not behaving the way I thought they would?

We get asked time and again to come up with answers, and rarely do we find them in the empirical data the client already has or is processing. To understand  ‘why’ something is happening, or ‘why’ your customers are behaving the way they are, we look closely at the context. This could be the other people in the equation, the external forces at play or the socio-political and cultural factors that help explain why things have gone off-plan. The power of intersubjective knowledge is real and is often critical to the decision-making process. An example of this, that won’t surface in big data, might be the over-arching mood of the nation when political tensions are rising. Over-dependence on data sets to tell you about your target audience will send you down the wrong path and result in mistakes being made. 

Contrast the above with a rich narrative of a human being derived from observation and immersion with that person, in their natural habitat, through the lens of their culture, is so vastly different from looking at data that same person generates through transactions. It’s the difference between something of great richness and a static, single-dimensional view. In short, marketers need to stop interrupting and disrupting consumers, listen to what they want and start the journey with them from there.

Human insight makes sense of the data, and data can help you to look at the insight in different ways. Add context to the melting pot and you achieve a higher status and a level of certainty and assuredness that differentiates the successes from the failures. You simply can’t do that in a meaningful way, without understanding humans and the people behind the clicks.

Chris Sheen
Chris Sheen

Great article! As a wiser person than me once said: "Data without context, is meaningless."

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