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Sifting Data to See the Customer

In a world awash in data about a person’s behavior, their characteristics, and their likes, how can marketers ensure the work they do doesn’t lose sight of the individual? Before you answer, consider this statistic from Analytics Week:

Data is growing faster than ever before and by the year 2020, about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every human being on the planet. 

As a marketer, does that stat make you want to run and hide? Confronting and leveraging that type of volume is definitely a challenge. To be clear though, there’s no returning to the days of operating models that depended on someone’s gut instinct; data is here to stay as the method for finding the truth. But the more we rely on data in the context of measuring buyer engagement or the customer experience the more we run the risk of detaching ourselves from the reality of the person we are measuring. It’s like running up against the laws of physics. Just as how black holes grow so massive they consume all matter within the range-  including light, data about an individual can be collected to the extent that the actual person becomes abstract or almost inconsequential, as nothing more than a dot on a dashboard. Funny, the more we know about an individual and insert them into a process, the less we see them as individuals.

Marketing’s Problem(s)

How can that conundrum be overcome when the following is true? In order to pursue revenue goals, marketing organizations are pressured to create multi-dimensional aggregate personas of buyers and customers so that any subsequent campaigns can be based on statistical averages that produce messages or content that are empirically (hopefully) more relatable, more appealing, and more personal (although that’s increasingly a loaded word) to the target group. More of those types of qualities equals more revenue. Or so goes the prevailing school of thought. In any event, vast amounts of data are required and it is not always within marketing’s span of control. Even when all the data sources are identified and access is granted it’s a rare marketing organization that has the sort of skills required to make enough sense of it all to drive meaningful insights. Now we have a skills problem and a data problem. And if you think about it a bit more, we have an ethical problem looming too. Once you have the combination of abundant data and advanced analytical skills, you have the means to build unconscious bias into your processes. Remember the individual we discussed? They’re getting further away.

Methods to Help

Marketers have a tough job in front of them. Ann Handley of MarketingProfs touched on the challenge in this piece. So did Econsultancy with this one. Both pieces talk about empathy being the key to bridging what I’m calling the individuality gap. The thinking is that if a buyer feels the seller understands them and the experience they are having seems genuine and of value, then they will be more apt to purchase. But what is empathy? Here’s a definition from The Atlantic that sounds mysteriously like the one described in much more excruciating detail in this academic paper from Stanford University. This is a good starting point. Empathy, at the very least, means the customer is in your thoughts. But is that good enough?

Getting Closer

We should go beyond empathy and feel something like compassion for our target audience. Compassion, according to UC Berkley, literally means “to suffer together.” Pretty stark language when we’re talking about customers but if we’re honest, sometimes suffering is the accurate word to use to describe their experience. So, instead of just being empathetic by putting ourselves in their shoes and imagining them interacting with our brand, our website, and our emails, we should, as best we can and more importantly, observe real buyer/customer experiences.

For marketers to build compassion into processes perhaps they need to rise above the data and do two things.

  1. Understand the value in finding the individual in the data, described neatly in this non-marketing article from Psychology Today.
  2. Assimilate the message of this story published recently by NPR. It’s an illustration of how being the customer (patient, in her case) afforded her the opportunity to truly understand their experience. And also in her case, it was real suffering. She took her near-death experience at the hospital in which she worked and eventually helped change the doctor-patient model to be more compassionate and personal.

For marketers, as I said, data is here to stay and so is scale. Those do not have to be sacrificed. Marketers can and must leverage the data to increase scale but they can also emulate the doctor’s experience when she became a patient by doing the next best thing in their own line of work. It’s not realistic to expect marketers to call buyers and customers directly. Typically, the role is not positioned to have that level of contact. They can, though, sit down with their services and support colleagues, those people who work closely with real customers. Gather critical stories from them about what they observe in their customer community. What are the day to day concerns of customers? What do they like most about your company? Least? What about competitors? There’s a vast amount of information contained in the heads of your colleagues that, from my observation, rarely if ever, gets captured in a CRM. That’s not a knock against them. The same can be stated about sales people.

Empathy, compassion, whichever word you choose, they will both get you moving in the right direction of ensuring that while you’re touching more of the world with your messaging, you’re not doing it from the vantage point of the equivalent of 40,000 feet.

Do you know which questions to ask in order to yield relevant customer data? Once you have that data, you need to know what to do with it. Download this guide to Maximize Your Marketing to learn how to use the right data at the right time to drive real results.

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