Big Ideas

Extreme Customization

How technology is shaping modern marketing

by Minda Zetlin

May 2016

Marketing has never been an easy discipline. But marketers in today’s world face a particular set of challenges their counterparts in earlier times could not have imagined. First, there’s the pace of technological change, which seems to offer a new way to engage with customers on a weekly basis. (Facebook Live launched the day this story went to print.) Fewer and fewer people watch broadcast television in favor of streaming shows via the web, marginalizing one of the most reliable ways to reach a mass audience. The use of ad blockers and email filters can narrow a consumer’s internet experience into an inaccessible niche. As a result, reaching consumers with a message is more complicated than it has ever been.

At the same time, both consumers and B2B customers are more demanding, more pressed for time, and increasingly impatient with any message that doesn’t meet their immediate specific needs. This is why expectation economy is a new term marketers are using these days, according to Rebecca Brooks, founder of Alter Agents, a market research firm in Los Angeles, California. Customers who know they can have a pizza delivered simply by tweeting or texting a pizza emoji to Domino’s are looking for that kind of convenience and insight for all their purchases, Brooks explains. “Consumer expectations are going up very fast across the board.”


But if technological innovation has created a challenging environment for marketers, it’s also helping them to reach out to customers in ever more effective ways. Here’s a look at how some of those innovations are powering new campaigns that have made even today’s impatient, overwhelmed, high-expectation customers sit up and take notice.

Big Data + Automation = Extreme Customization

By combining search, social, and other data, cleaning it, and using it to create models, you can gain insight into customer behavior and sentiment, according to Joe Webb, global lead at TNS Connected Solutions, which produces the annual Connected Life study for the market research firm TNS, headquartered in London, England. “You can create data that is predictive and forward-looking, which is infinitely more useful than a survey, which is looking backwards,” he says.

The first step is automatically collecting customer data, combining everything from demographic information to data gleaned during past interactions, to tracking which messages particular customers have opened, which links they’ve clicked and when, and how long they’ve remained on a given web page—that is, their digital body language. The crucial second step is using that information to respond to those signals with a tailored message while your product or product category is still top of mind, and your message is most likely to capture the customer’s attention. The only way to do that is with automation.

For example, Dell Inc. has 12,000 different versions of emails (in English alone) that it sends to customers at different times, in different circumstances, depending on the interest they’ve displayed in different types of Dell products. “The process is fully automated,” says Annalisa Church, director of global marketing at Dell. “It happens when our customers are interested in looking at specific content, and it doesn’t take any human intervention to make that program run.”


Percentage of their connected time Americans spend on a PC, compared with 28.9 percent globally (Source: TNS Connected Life study of more than 60,000 consumers worldwide)


It works like this: A prospective customer is browsing storage solutions on The system will automatically send that customer a message about Dell’s storage solutions. If the customer clicks on the link in that message, he or she will automatically receive a second email about storage containing additional content that customer might find useful. If the customer doesn’t click on that first message, Dell’s system might automatically send a second message with different content about storage or possibly one of Dell’s other product lines. Customizing messages in this way has led to a response rate at least three to four times higher than they would get from a generic communication.

Did Dell employees really create 12,000 separate emails? Of course not. “We figured out a way to make the messages dynamic and modular,” Church explains. “Oracle Eloqua allows us to populate emails based on the way someone is clicking and researching. We couldn’t do all the things we do today if we had to do them manually, or pay an email service to do them.”

Timing is everything in today’s marketing world, and here again technological innovation lets marketers reach out to customers, not only with more-individualized information, but also much faster. “We have a 24-hour time limit,” Church says. Past that point, there’s a danger customers won’t remember what they were browsing for. And it’s why she’s especially excited that Oracle Eloqua solutions integrate smoothly with Salesforce.

“Our old process involved filling out a spreadsheet to get leads to sales,” she says. “It involved three or four hand-offs with different teams uploading different information into Salesforce so that a salesperson could follow up.” With the new system, when an individual uploads contact information into the system, an Oracle Eloqua solution sends that information to Salesforce within about 90 minutes. Dell reps can respond more quickly, and that’s made a real difference. “Research shows you get a 30 percent increase in sales when you can get a lead to sales that much faster,” Church says.

Customers on a Journey

Another huge benefit of modern marketing technology is that it helps identify where customers are in their customer journey, a term in frequent use in marketing circles today. It’s becoming a popular concept precisely because many companies are finding that if they only seek to interact with customers at the moment they’re ready to purchase, they are likely leaving business on the table.

The journey begins with an expression of initial interest, often discovered by tracking digital body language. “There are so many points of contact, so much information, and so many sources of information,” Church says. The idea is to begin presenting the customer or prospective customer with useful and pertinent information as he or she begins searching for it. “Dell doesn’t necessarily have to be top of mind at that point, but at least in the running,” she says. “If we didn’t reach out then, we would still be focused on that last mile before a purchase is made.” And when you’re talking about someone buying millions of dollars’ worth of technology solutions, by then it may be too late.

Oracle Eloqua allows us to populate emails based on the way someone is clicking and researching. We couldn’t do all the things we do today if we had to do them manually, or pay an email service to do them.”–Annalisa Church, Director of Global Marketing, Dell Inc.

Mapping the customer journey is a big priority for Bronwyn Sims, head of behavioral commu-nications and analytics at REA Group. REA Group is a media company that owns and runs (comparable to in the United States), which does not sell real estate but helps connect real estate industry professionals with individual property buyers and sellers.

To make the most of the many data points the company collects from consumers, Sims and her team spent time mapping out the various journeys those consumers might take, whether they were seeking to purchase or sell a home, learn about rentals, make an offer, simply look at real estate out of curiosity, and so on. “Using all those pieces of behavioral information, we see which consumers are in which granular segments—not just whether they’re looking to rent or buy or sell, but at which stage. We can trigger different personalized communication programs to talk to them at specific times about site features appropriate for them.”

For instance, has an email message about discovering different neighborhoods that it sends out to consumers early in the home search process. If they sign up to attend an open house (called “open for inspection” in Australia) they receive tips on how to make the most of such visits. Even after they’ve made a purchase, consumers receive further communications to help them sign up with local utilities and other services.

Really Understanding Customers

“The intelligence automation can provide is really overwhelming,” comments Karen Primm, manager of marketing communications operations at the power management company Eaton, headquartered in Dublin, Ireland. “It gives us the opportunity to really understand and track people, so we can send information that’s going to help them.”

At the same time, Webb says, smart marketers focus tightly on their organization’s brand and its market, and use that focus to guide where and how they deliver messages. “There’s a trap as we add new touchpoints,” he says. “We think we have to do social, we have to do Twitter, we have to do a mobile app. We focus on these things one at a time, and in reality, we should be focusing on what our brand stands for and what it needs to communicate—and let that drive touchpoint selection.”

You can avoid these mistakes by keeping strategic goals in mind, adds Christopher S. Penn, vice president of marketing technology at SHIFT Communications, a PR and communications agency headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. “All these tools are like GPS,” he says. “They can only help you if you know where you’re going.”

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