Brandspeak: How to Move from Campaigns to Conversations

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Brandspeak Merkle Jennifer Perry & Danielle Block

The following is a guest post by Merkle’s Jennifer Perry (above left) and Danielle Block (above right):

Today, there is little tolerance for brand irrelevance. Buyers expect brands to engage in meaningful conversations during key moments of need. To meet their expectations, the industry must move away from siloed channel and product-level campaign thinking and more toward managing key customer interactions. These interactions come down to specific moments. Managing moments means having a defined strategy for understanding and responding to customers’ needs at every possible touchpoint. For brands to gain market share, they’ll need to invest in a more cohesive audience strategy that meets the unique needs of buyers and personalizes each customer’s experience.

Elevating experiences is not easy, but valuable and worthwhile initiatives typically are not.

As Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter defined in his 1996 paper, What is Strategy? strategy involves creating fit among a company’s activity. Fit has to do with making purposeful tradeoffs to create differentiation, as well as how a company’s activities interact and reinforce one another in support.

To create fit, brands need to identify the most winnable customers and determine how to manage their experiences by enabling fluid interaction among business units—referred to as activating the future-state buyer experience. An effective future-state buyer experience addresses unique needs throughout the course of the journey—ultimately influencing the consumer by providing exactly what they’re looking for. To architect this experience, brands need to achieve the following:

  1. Gain internal alignment via discovery. Understand the current technology in place and the internal experience gaps. Work across the company to conquer silos and create unified objectives that address gaps and organizational needs.
  2. Identify why customers buy. Leverage consumer insight to identify the unique needs that impact purchase decisions within the market, how the market landscape differs, and focus on who the most winnable audience is.
  3. Outline how the brand can best influence key segments of the market. Position the product in a more resonant way by addressing customers’ unique needs at that point in their journeys.
  4. Map key interactions that enable the delivery of timely and personalized content.Utilize data to trigger a conversation between the brand and the individual.

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Planning to manage customer interaction moments requires strategy that starts with the mindset of the customer and an understanding of your long-term business goals. The following approach is a combination of best practices, lessons learned, and where customer-centric marketing is headed next.

Understanding Your Business Needs

Planning needs to start with the end in mind. Future-state experience planning can be a massive undertaking, but can deliver immense dividends. To ensure success, you need a deep understanding of both customer and business needs and to develop a team that can create alignment between stakeholders at the beginning the process. The goal is to create a meaningful, actionable, and fluid output in which all business units feel their voices are heard and incorporated into the solution design. You can do this by identifying stakeholder groups and conducting deep discovery sessions to understand the current-state experience and execution infrastructure.

Discovery questions will vary on the situation, but should generally reveal a comprehensive look at the current customer experience (e.g., technology in place, content used in marketing, and processes used to determine and deliver content). The result of discovery should produce documentation of key data points that identify how a project like this could solve current major pain points, how teams gain efficiency, and how you would evolve the experience.

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Understanding Unique Needs of Buyers

Like any relationship, connecting with customers is a two-way street. You need to take the time to understand customer needs in addition to your internal business needs. The audience insight process develops a deep understanding of the psychology consumers use to make purchase decisions. To identify the purchase paths, we use a process known as laddering—part of what academics refer to as means-end theory. It illustrates a combination of instinctive and rational product needs and benefits, and how they correlate to personal needs and values. This is the foundation for understanding the personal relevance that customers seek when making decisions. The most successful brands are relentlessly relevant and, they create products that fulfill underlying personal needs.

However, not everyone in the market makes decisions the same way. This research process quantifies how decision-making differs, what segments of the audience are most winnable, what their profiles look like, and how we can best target them via proxies. Brands can then prioritize efforts to meet the needs of key groups of customers by creating content that will be relevant (and thereby persuasive) to those audiences. The reality is that you can’t do everything all at once. Not every consumer/prospect segment in the category should be treated equally (which reinforces Porters 1996 point on fit). It is critical to prioritize the most profitable audiences.

Creating the Future-State Experience

This future-state buyer decision journey (BDJ) example creates a foundation for a well-thought-out experience by detailing persona, industry, product, and occasion plans. The document is a visual manifestation of the future-state experience built on the discovery sessions and customer insights. It should map out the common ground experience—a universal template on which individual experiences will be based. The journey fulfills Porter’s strategy requirement that a “company’s activities interact and reinforce on another” by:

  1. Addressing customers/prospects’ common needs and behaviors at each point in the journey, to define a baseline experience for how they advance in a logical, simple manner.
  2. Differentiating the experience by integrating the voice of the customer, bringing to life pain points and moments of truth throughout the journey, in order to shape positioning recommendations for key personas.

The journey consists of three major components that span lifestyle stages: customer needs, experience delivery specifics and business objectives.

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Once you have identified the common needs in different situations, along the purchase path and defined experience components, we can begin building out interaction plans to prioritize the individual-level needs (e.g., timely product, industry, and persona-type messaging in the right channel) and enable the outlined optimal experience.

Individualizing the Experience to Address Key Moments

To start moving away from a one-way, campaign-based approach in which marketers are primarily telling customers what they want to say, there must be movement toward an environment in which we utilize data and analytics to understand what activity is occurring. This data explores where the customer is in their journey, and what sort of content you should be delivering at the right moment in time.

To manage this transition to conversations and meaningfully engage customers, you need to build a persona-based marketer’s interaction playbook that shows how to activate and manage the optimal experience across channels, industry, and product. The interaction playbook includes the following components:

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The playbook identifies relevant content and messaging and then plans the best message to offer in every situation across all channels. Essentially, when the customer does X, your brand should do Y.

With the playbook set, you have to develop the necessary content to run plays. Media, creative and product messaging briefs help to align all involved parties to the buyer decision journey and buyer personas. In today’s specialized world, where a brand might have ten different agencies working on a campaign, these documents help all of them to get on the same page and to be quick, relevant, and purposeful with brand messaging. You’ll leverage the playbook to activate the persona and buyer decision journey findings connecting the dots across screens, channels, and teams. Next, you’ll outline a list of KPIs against each channel and touchpoint to inform the evaluation of performance.

In-Market Results

This process is not solely an academic approach, the purpose is to get results. By using this method, a more holistic, individualized and customer-centric experience is created and will deliver immediate ROI across a company’s digital ecosystem. Below are a few example results from a Fortune 500 tech company that applied this audience strategy in its market:

  • Activating against the BDJ with persona-based messaging and targeting led to increased engagement by 20%-50% over previous nonpersonalized emails.
  • Increased engagement with email opens and clicks at the highest level in past 12 months and well ahead of industry benchmarks (over 30% per touch vs. industry benchmark of 19%).

As this ideal future state becomes realized, everything should be tested and optimized. With cross-channel planning comes the need for advanced attribution, reporting and insights. Those insights will drive the conversations that shape brand interaction, determine customer-centricity and produce true lifetime customer value.


Jennifer Perry and Danielle Block are Associate Directors at Merkle, a performance marketing agency.

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