The following is an interview by Dr. Karl Hellman with Alan Kittle, SVP Creative and Strategy at Harte Hanks. Karl was curious about Alan’s perspective after an extended series of meetings with clients across the USA and Europe. Karl’s question topics ranged from the 5 Pillars of Best-in-Class Marketing to social issue advertising.
Alan, I am told you visited numerous companies over the last half year. About how many clients did you visit, and can you give us a sketch, maybe by industry or size?
Alan: I’m into double digits for client visits and meetings over the past six months. We’ve made pitches and capabilities presentations and also conducted workshops. The clients cover the map in terms of sectors: retail, home security, consumer products, financial services, insurance, and high tech. We visited more B2C than B2B firms. The small B2B brands had a mix of B2B and B2C interests. Small business owners seemed to think, act, and buy like consumers most of the time. So a lot of what we discussed with these clients boiled down to the same challenges.
5 Pillars Interest
If you had to make a guess, which of Harte Hanks’ 5 Pillars of Best-in-Class Marketing (segmentation, personas, buyer’s journey, content, data & martech) tended to generate the most interest among the companies you visited? Does the answer vary by industry or company size?
Alan: All of the clients we talked to had strong areas to build on. But the hottest issues were primarily related to buyer’s journeys and content.
All of the clients we talked to had strong areas to build on. But the hottest issues were primarily related to buyer’s journeys and content.
Some clients had a lot more confidence in their personas than we did. To me, some of the personas did not come alive or convey rich, data-driven insights. Instead, they seemed more like names and photos taped to generic market segments. I think this reflects the personalization learning curve that marketing is going through.
Clients are investing a lot in data enrichment and martech, and they recognize they are not using it to its full capability. Once they move through a few more iterations of making their data actionable and tailored to specific customers, they will be able to circle back and enrich their personas.
Another headache for clients is understanding just how much—and what type of—content they need to really ensure each part of the buyer’s journey is well served for each audience group. There’s a perception that it becomes very expensive to build a full content stack, and that could be true if agencies and clients use the same model for content as for other types of campaign assets. Rethinking the creative process so you don’t just build content via agencies––but rather through influencers, syndicators, users, etc.––can help create that “stack” in a more efficient way, and allows you to optimize rather than build from scratch.
What were some of the most obvious examples of where personalization could have impact? What did you think was keeping those companies from getting more personal with their customers?
Alan: For one client, the most “personal” level was understanding the household. They tracked families that recently moved homes, but not what would motivate specific buyers within that household to consider their services. They had moved beyond simple demographics and integrated multiple types of buyer data, but they needed to drop into the next level of granularity and get to know individuals within the household much better––their prejudices and perceptions of what a product could offer them. Emotional and rational decision-making were just not well understood yet.
In another case, even if you signed up for specific emails from one of their brands, you still received a generic email from the parent company. A B2B brand tracked SIC code per customer, but hardly anything else that would tell you about specific customer needs or issues. Overall, I concluded that personalization, at an atomic “moment” level, is still a future—hopefully not too distant—aspiration for most clients.
Overall, I concluded that personalization, at an atomic “moment” level, is still a future—hopefully not too distant—aspiration for most clients.
Did you get a sense whether companies have much data about the buyer’s journey and how to better serve those journeys? What would be the single most important step forward for those companies to better serve buyers during their journeys?
Alan: Most companies are using sticking plasters (that’s British for Band-Aids) to try and create satisfying journeys for their customers. I’m really passionate about this. If customers are not happy at various points along the journey, then you have to make changes and start doing what is most helpful to them!
Even the most progressive companies experience resistance in redesigning their buyer’s journey to better meet customer needs.
Even the most progressive companies experience resistance in redesigning their buyer’s journey to better meet customer needs. They experience internal resistance to overhauling their touchpoints (phone, site, store, etc.) to do what’s most helpful for their customers. Internal silos find it easier to force customers down the most convenient chute, and then they try to back-engineer a journey from there. It’s very frustrating when you see the difference it makes for leading brands or sectors, where you can see measurable success, but status quo wins the internal political battles in too many companies. If you’re not willing to disrupt yourselves, others will do it to you!
Was attribution a pretty common frustration for the clients you visited? Did they know what prevents them from seeing the full picture of all the influences on buyers, and why they make the choices they do during their journeys? What was your sense of how hard companies will work to fix the attribution problem?
Alan: Like the situation with journeys, clients want to improve attribution. Clients see value in it, but I’m not sure they’re passionate enough about metrics of success to overcome internal resistance. Our analytics teams do a great job of creating attribution models and establishing causality for our campaigns. But it’s tough in such fragmented channels, and with limited data, to really identify which interactions are driving behaviors and how to test to improve results across the journey.
In most cases it will take even more data and martech investment, and that is a tough pill to swallow. Sometimes I think there is so much pressure on CMOs to show a positive impact or to show they are “doing something”—and I know this is controversial—that the importance of attribution gets pushed to the side and short-term results dominate the agenda.
Sometimes I think there is so much pressure on CMOs to show a positive impact or to show they are “doing something”—and I know this is controversial—that the importance of attribution gets pushed to the side and short-term results dominate the agenda.
I know my teams care deeply about attribution. They want to know what worked and why. They look for iterative improvements and to continually raise the bar. But we often hit a wall of political resistance, typically from outside the marketing department, when we challenge clients for measurable results. The most “mature” clients know this is an issue and they work with us to move their organizations in the right direction.
Social Issue Marketing
Was social issue marketing a hot topic during your visits? Do clients see it as a creative technique for taking advantage of current events, or something more strategic? Are political issues something you do not address in a business conversation, or does it seem to be a more normative marketing topic these days?
Alan: The topic did not surface on its own for these clients. I brought it up in a few cases and tested the waters when I thought there might be an authentic connection to their brand purpose. For a home security brand to extend their brand purpose into personal security, for instance.
I’m not a fan of “borrowed interest” marketing of any type, so I would not suggest any old issue be capitalized on. If it makes sense strategically, then that’s fine. It has to feel genuine though or consumers will see straight through it and the campaign will probably be more detrimental than beneficial. Consumers are sharp enough to see through false campaigns. A few ads were pummeled on social media during the Winter Olympics, while a few others were widely praised. If the company’s connection to the issue is organic and sincere, then it has the potential of being very powerful.