Marketing is Broken. Bring on Context.

We have to face the truth about marketing today. It is fundamentally broken. Those in the business know the stats. Our research indicates only 0.1% of display ads are clicked on, yet comScore’s Digital Future In Focus report for 2013 reports in the U.S. alone 5.3 trillion of them were served last year, primarily paid for by clicks. Email marketing, largely seen as the most cost-effective marketing channel sees a vast majority of its email go un-opened, let alone clicked-though. Direct mail has response rates in the low single digits and continues to fall.  And even TV can no longer hold the attention of a consumer long enough to deliver a commercial to them, with Millward Brown Digital reporting 78% of consumers accessing second screens while they watch (or cut the cord and stream on their phone or tablets).

The answer to improving marketing results today seems to be ‘do more of it’ rather than do it smarter. And let’s be honest about the tactics. Many marketers do not routinely use even basic segmentation and targeting of advertising today. Look-alike targeting based on demographics and sites-visited is about as sophisticated as it gets in most cases. And the result? According to a recent Aima Institute study over half of consumers now “take steps to actively avoid brands.” Consumers are tuning out. We all have. Instead of seeing something relevant, we are bombarded by weapons of mass distraction.

Search advertising as a marketing tactic is as close to responding to customer context as most marketers will get, though they often loose the context immediately after the click. But of course search advertising has its dark side too, serving as either basic navigation or taking credit for delivering an ad on a product the customer was simply finding… which is especially true for branded products.

We can and should do better. As every good salesman knows, if we listen to customers they tell us what they are really interested in. Marketers can now do this too – by ‘listening’ to the signals generated by browsing and researching behavior each customer is giving us on their journey to a potential purchase. Using this context data to drive better communication and marketing is now an imperative. This is made even more urgent with the way the smartphone and tablet have changed our habits, creating a convoluted media landscape where the channels a marketer uses competes with Candy Crush, cat videos, and House of Cards for our attention. And of course how we shop has changed radically as well, with the omnichannel customer experience that crosses digital and traditional channels now a standard in our all our lives.

Marketers also need to make an admission and change their mind-set. Marketers need to see that this is bigger than determining segments and personas. That simply does not scale, and it is certainly not customer specific. One long-time excellent email marketer once told me years ago that in her view a human being can only build and target with eight customer segments at any given time. I think this is as true today as it ever was.

The truth is we have to automate, deriving context and triggering marketing and communication in an automated fashion in the channels the customer wants and responds to (getting to opt-in vs. interrupt). We have to use the real-time signal of intent (what a customer responds to, clicks on, ignores, hovers over, and picks up) to determine context in real-time and deliver the right communication and yes – marketing – to encourage trial, buy, and evangelize.  There will always be a role for a mass advertising campaign, such as a new major product launch, but have to use the power of the customer signal and optimize. And in fact, nothing can compare to the signal we get from how a customer navigates.

This will be marketing’s next chapter.