When the country initially shut down in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, overnight many companies cut their marketing budgets and activities to zero. Many of those dollars and organizational efforts went to helping customers and communities deal with the pandemic. And many of those efforts are still going on, and the impact of these efforts have been essential to helping people and small businesses make it through this difficult time. And another result of these efforts is to more meaningfully connect companies with their customers and surrounding communities, which has created the opportunity for these deeper relationships to be in place long after the pandemic has run its course.
It appears that companies may be learning that traditional marketing models that are more transactional in nature might be less effective in the Post Covid-19 world where relationships may matter more.
Interview with Anand Thaker on COVID-19 Changing Marketing Strategy
And recently I had an interesting LinkedIn Live conversation with marketing technology (MarTech) industry expert Anand Thaker to get his take on how COVID may be changing how companies look at marketing, and what role technology will need to play in order for those Post Covid marketing efforts to be successful.
Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. To hear the entire conversation click on the embedded SoundCloud player.
Small Business Trends: CRM thought leader Jesus Hoyos was recently on CRM Playaz and he made a point about how marketing automation technology previous to COVID was broken because there is not single point of communication with customers today, and the tech was built with that in mind. And the pandemic has made the situation even worse. What are you seeing with marketing during the pandemic, and the roll martech is playing?
Anand Thaker: Technology only magnifies who we are. If we’re bad at what we’re doing, guess what? We’re going to use the technology or misuse it and vice versa. I think what he was talking about with regards to one email address, really resonated with me because there’s another problem, especially in the B2B space, where it’s not only just one person with one email for one person, but then you also have one assumed decision maker per company. In a B2B capacity, if you had five different people at a particular company and they all downloaded your white paper or did different things to end up in your CRM database or marketing automation database, how do you rectify that? That’s one of the biggest challenges behind the scenes that people didn’t really talk about, and probably one of the main reasons that marketing operations became an incredibly thriving profession, is how do you resolve these types of things?
This is part of the reason I think we should probably start looking at databases that connect these different places. I think a lot of people have heard, especially listening in, about customer database or customer data platforms, CDPs. One of the benefits of that is you’re really trying to get a full, what we used to call the 360 view of the customer. This is the opportunity for a brand to own the customer and the customer experience starting from, again having clean data. Part of the reason we don’t have clean data is not necessarily through laziness or challenges with the experience of trying to ingest that data in from third parties, but it’s also we find a big challenge in having that data spread … I mean, we have challenges in terms of data being in the different technologies. How do we centralize that information when we actually need to do it?
This could lead to a conversation on privacy and AI. Let’s say your stack of technologies related to the customers, 18 to 30, some odd pieces of technology, how do you even respect the customer’s wishes on their privacy, or how do you apply AI in a grander scope of things that would help you navigate what that really respects?
Small Business Trends: The foundation of how we built our customer engagement is spread out. It’s disparate. It’s kind of hard to bring it all together. It’s kind of hard to make sense of whatever the interactions are because they’re coming in from all over the place. Maybe there’s a technology problem, but let’s take the technology problem out of it. There’s still a big issue with a lot of companies, because they’re looking at things from their perspective. They’re looking at how do we get people to buy more stuff and not necessarily looking at it from the customer’s perspective.
Let’s face it. They can have the greatest technology, they can have the greatest platform, they can have all the data coming in, they can have their AI running and finding all these great insights, and if they don’t deliver those insights in a meaningful way, in a way that will be empathetic and will connect the dots to the customer, all that stuff is for naught.
Anand Thaker: Yep.
Small Business Trends: I think that’s where we are. To take it one step further. I’ve talked to a number of companies, and there are a lot of folks who just cut the spigot off when it came to doing any kind of marketing, ad campaigns, marketing campaigns, cut it off completely just because of the uncertainty in the environment. The interesting thing about that is not that they did it, because everybody was kind of scared. You’re starting to see some life coming back to that, but I’ve been having some really interesting conversations, I’m not going to say who, but there are vendors who said, “Yeah, we cut it out, and guess what? We’re doing all right. We are not going to be going back to what we were doing before. We’re not going to be spending that money the way we were spending it before.”
I have a suspicion that the few companies I talked to, they are just representative of what I think is going to be happening on the other side of the pandemic. It seems to me that there’s a movement from a lot of these companies who spent a lot of money and did a lot of this programmatic stuff. They might not be coming back to spend anywhere near what they spent on those activities before COVID-19. Are you hearing anything like that?
Anand Thaker: Yeah, absolutely. We’re seeing it on a couple of fronts. COVID shook a lot of things up. The old models don’t support a lot of those purposeful missions moving forward. Let me roll back a little bit because on the front of talking about programmatic advertising and what that means, in terms of businesses actually cutting off marketing, or just cutting out marketing or cutting out advertising, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to just do things, regardless of whether it’s the highest performing, because you’ve got to do them. You’ve got the spend, you’re going to budget. That’s what everybody else is doing. You have the fear of missing out. “Oh my gosh, if I saw it … ”
Think about it like billboards or TV ads, or let’s say Superbowl commercials. People have this fear of missing out because, “Oh man, my competitor did a Superbowl commercial, therefore we should strive to do something similar.” Well, we don’t live in that kind of world today. There’s not a limited channel of ways to engage with a customer anymore. Those things start to change. Many companies that I’ve talked to or have heard from or learn about as I hear about, they try to take one channel and think that’s the silver bullet rather than trying to diversify into a portfolio. One of the things I’ve been striving for, I’ve been working intensely with companies for the last eight, nine months now trying to navigate them through the COVID or some of those crisis situations.
One of the first things is marketing, yes or no? That’s not the right question to ask. That correct question is, is the marketing efforts or spend that you have, are they engaged in building a relationship with a customer? If it’s not part of the journey or if they’re not responsible for the entire journey back into the business operations of the company, then yeah, maybe need to consider cutting it, because it’s an expensive spend and you’re basically competing … You’re selling against yourself. You spend a dollar, someone spends 105, then you got to spend 110, then they spend more and then you have to spend more, but if your marketing spend is basically driven on developing a deeper relationship, meaning you are training your staff, frontline staff perhaps, at a retail store, on developing better experiences, or you’re working on the digital journey for how people buy, or trying to come up with different ways to help your customers make a decision, or help them, say, like in a fintech world, like you have some sort of financial services option, you’re trying to help them be better financial … financially savvy.
If you’re doing those types of things and the customer feels like you’re helping them through that, whether they buy from you or not, they become those advocates. That’s the part where you can elevate across your other competitors by sitting there and focusing on it. A lot of people say that, but they’re not talking about … They’re talking about limited to the digital spend, but there’s a lot of pieces beyond the digital ad. I think that’s what a lot of companies are doing, Brent, is they’re looking at the grand scope of things and saying, “Wow. Really, ads aren’t bringing the conversion rates we’re looking for, or perhaps aren’t giving us the awareness that we’re really hoping for,” but I think a lot of that will change over time and everyone will evolve. I’m always a believer that people and companies will evolve because either they need to, or they go away.
Small Business Trends: But the whole idea of empathy …
Anand Thaker: That’s right.
Small Business Trends: What I’ve noticed, the programmatic stuff, there is absolutely no empathy involved. That’s just pure, we know data, we know where you’ve been and we’re going to follow you and hound you wherever you go on the web. You see popups and it’s just ridiculous and it makes you not want to buy anything. There’s zero … I mean, they did a lot of work on the analytics. They did a lot of data aggregation. They’ve been looking at the insight, knowing where you’re going to go. That’s great.
Anand Thaker: Right.
Small Business Trends: Zero empathy in the actual activity and the action. I think that is driving people crazy. That’s why I think you’re seeing folks, because in the pandemic, the thing that you need most is empathy in order to show folks, like you said, that they care and that you’re creating an interaction that is based off of not just data, but it’s based off of data and delivered in an empathetic way that lets people understand that you care.
Anand Thaker: Right.
Small Business Trends: That’s where I think there’s an opportunity for a shift in some of this budget away from just pure programmatic, pure analytics, pure re-target, and to have to do a little bit more work, which requires you to really understand, not just know where you’re going or know where they’re going, but to understand why, and then to create an interaction opportunity that takes that into consideration so that you don’t spend all your time and effort and money on pure analytics and understanding without being able to deliver that understanding in an empathetic way.
Anand Thaker: I agree. The reason I tend to hesitate using empathy in some of these conversations is because we don’t define that well. I think that’s one of the problems is we don’t say what it is that we’re doing to be empathetic. For example, I mean, you’re training your frontline staff to be your team members to better serve their customers, or you’re trying to find an easier way for people to pay for their merchandise online, or you’re trying to understand how to elevate someone’s profession. I mean, I think if you’re going to use the word empathy, then you need to say exactly what you’re trying to accomplish, at least one thing that’s more specific than just saying, “Oh yeah, we’re going to be empathetic.”
That’s the kind of crap that gets all these companies in trouble is they go find a lot of these empathy consultants and then guess what they’re asking you to do too? There’s a lot of good ones out there and you know what they’re going to tell you? They’re going to say, “What are you doing that makes you empathetic or more empathetic than someone else?” Empathy is a magic word, but until you actually define what that is for your company specifically, actionable, like what those actionable steps will look like or what’s the goal look like, you’re not going to get anywhere. We’ve seen some matters come up where people are like, “Oh, well you just changed your logo and put out like a press release and you think you’re done,” and it’s not. You have to do more than that to make that magic happen.
Small Business Trends: Yeah, but here’s the thing. They have resources.
Anand Thaker: Right.
Small Business Trends: I don’t want to make light of the amount of effort and finances that it takes to identify where your customers are engaging and integrate into those channels and get that data in and analyze that data and understand that data and try to find insights that will impact at that time, at the right time. That’s a ton of work. That’s a ton of money and it takes a ton of effort, but why go through all that and then fumble when you actually go to address that person if you haven’t spent a little time, a little effort? It doesn’t have to be a 50/50 split here, but it does have to have … You have to spend some time not only understanding, but then, how do we best communicate our understanding? How do we best communicate that insight so that when we do interact with somebody, they’re more likely to understand where we’re coming from and that we’re on their side and we’re trying to deliver some value for them at the time they need it? That’s all I’m saying.
Anand Thaker: Yeah. A measurable way to look at that, this is just back of the napkin kind of thing, is look at retention. How many people are you keeping as customers, if you’re in this subscription-based world? How many people are advocates of yours, like active advocates, not just liking something on one of the social media platforms? I’m talking about they are out there selling on your behalf. They’re proud to be part of your company as a result of things.
Then the third piece would be, how easy has it been to recruit? If a company is doing a great job of having empathy and it’s being well demonstrated, you’ll see people come in that want to work for you. Maybe it’s a little skewed today because COVID is going to cause a lot of shuffle in terms of talent opportunities and opportunities for jobs just period, but still, I mean, how many of the best talent is coming your way, as opposed to you having to pull them in and try to recruit them at the highest price possible because you’re struggling in some capacity? Think about it from a recruiting standpoint, an advocate standpoint and a retention standpoint. Those will give you clues about how well your empathy is working.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.