Is your research leading to zero degrees of separation?

By Sebastian Jespersen, Founder & CEO, Vertic, New York, New York, sjespersen@vertic.com

Any marketer will tell you that the first lesson in successful marketing is “know your audience.” Without question, today’s data-driven economy can help brands learn more about their customers—simple demographics are no longer enough in today’s complex marketing environment. Researchers, as well as those who profess expertise in identifying consumers’ background, are now being forced to deliver more than just numbers and simplified insights. In particular, in the age of Big Data, qualitative research can play a stronger role now, more than ever.

Researchers and marketers are being required to translate millions of data points into actionable information and make it available to all divisions of a company that works with customers. Ultimately, everyone is looking to answer the question, “how can a company create a mutually-rewarding, meaningful, and long-lasting relationship with its customers?”

Over the past three years, I have worked with advertising legend and founding father of one-to-one marketing Stan Rapp to develop a new marketing doctrine that addresses the challenge to win over and then keep today’s new digitally-obsessed customer for a lifetime. We call this Share of Life™. As a new business model, the concept is more than developing an interconnection between brand and customer; it strives to ensure that such a relationship will last a lifetime.  Share of Life™ literally describes how a brand is used in a person’s routine during a 24-hour period. With so many distractions in the digital age, earning a permanent place in the consumer’s new way of life becomes imperative. However, brands that add meaning and value to our day often enter our lives so effortlessly that most of us do not even notice.

But what is enabling a relationship that goes far beyond the product or service?

Our lives are very different than they were a decade ago. We no longer go online; we live online. Per Forrester Research, 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine, and 74% of the decision-making process is completed before even contacting a company directly. While our digital compulsion ultimately is calling for new business models to be born, it is also creating a huge opportunity for brand and consumer to attain zero degrees of separation—instead of an arms-length relationship. We are becoming entangled as we increasingly do more of our shopping, more of our dating, more of our friendship-making, more of our learning, more of our news-seeking, more of our communicating, and more of our buying online. All of which are providing valuable data and insights.

In fact, brands and customers are now joining together to provide value to each other in a relationship that benefits both parties, while also allowing each to evolve along with the other. Few companies have managed to master all these data and insights to gain a permanent place in consumers’ lives, and some have misused the entangled relationship with their customers—think Facebook.

Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google increasingly are being incorporated into more and more aspects of our daily lives—to a point where you can argue if it’s possible to live a normal life without them. The amount of both quantitative and qualitative data that these companies have has never been available to any company or government before. They simply know much more and can predict more accurately—and better. Yet, what companies do with this data is what truly matters.

Regardless of industry sector or whether a company has a business-to-business or business-to-consumer focus, the ultimate customer is always a human being. And the human decision-making process typically begins with our hearts and emotions and leads into our brains and rationale. To reach the hearts of customers, qualitative data can play an instrumental role—one that goes beyond a tiny data window that provides a glimpse of just a few individual actions or preferences. To move into a more rewarding, integrated relationship with a customer, one needs to consider multiple, varied data sources.

With the opportunities that technology presents today, we can harvest both quantitative and qualitative data, while at the same time scaling to greater heights. Yet, without integrating quantitative and qualitative frameworks into an analytics process, it’s clear that data simply remain just that—data, without any critical insights, meaningfulness, or tangible opportunities.

Winning companies achieve zero degrees of separation with their customers by essentially incorporating the brand into the person’s lifestyle and daily routine—without being perceived as intrusive. Our digital lifestyle provides exactly this opportunity. The core objective of getting to zero degrees is to understand the digital life of the customers—and all of them individually, not just a small sample that is then generalized. Key is to respect and treat our customers for exactly what they are—unique individual human beings.

We have found that almost all companies say that they know their audiences. However, most are using either quantitative or qualitative data, or they are using both—separately. Everyone is frantically trying to collect as much quantitative data as possible, but without the clarity of qualitative research, true insights become extremely speculative. Confirmation bias is rampant in quant. One small piece of data is almost never meaningful enough to build a case or create a hypothesis, but blended with other insights and observations gathered, the data eventually come together to create a powerful understanding—that can form a decision-making foundation for a business.

In short, data are certainly the new currency between a brand and its audiences—when used responsibly to create meaning and value for the customer through their willingness to provide information. Quantitative with qualitative, brand with customer, one with one is essential to the integrity of research and insights.

We envision an essential shift taking place at the heart of brands within a digital-first age. An evolution from what marketers had traditionally known as one-to-one marketing is now moving toward one-with-one. The ultimate result is an entangled customer and brand—both enjoying a mutually-beneficial relationship over time.

Ongoing Commitment:

Commitments come in many forms and include both existing customers and prospects and can be categorized by type, such as intellectual commitments and opt-ins, financial and transactional commitments, or strategic partnership commitments. After defining and mapping customer commitments, there is a need to plan how to create mutually beneficial relationships with strategically important commitments. Start by giving something back to customers and prospects who have shown a commitment. This will move relationships from a single commitment to an ongoing commitment. To accomplish this, the company needs to engage in meaningful, relevant communications and interactions that are based on data and insights.

Nonstop Reinforcement:

Consciously reinforce the strength of your customer’s commitment to your brand. The aim is to build on the trust between the brand and its customers. The communication strategy must position the brand as a long-term reliable partner rather than a short-term vendor pushing transactional spam. It’s critical to make the customer feel special and to continue to build trust by always listening.

Digital Empowerment:

The new digital life of customers provides the brand with an opportunity to attain “zero degrees of separation”—an intimacy with the customer. Empower the internet-focused customer with rewarding and enlightening online experiences that leverage data and insights, so they can do more with the brand’s product or services. Examples are product usage, Internet of Things data, or relying on deep customer insights that allow the brand and its customers to come together and accomplish tasks together. This will lead to product and service co-innovation and strengthening the bonds of brand-with-customer entanglement.

Renewed Excitement:

The degree of enthusiasm associated with a product or service naturally fades over time. Maintain your digital extensions and continue with innovations that generate renewed excitement. Do not rely on automated communication; it will not create sufficient excitement to build a bond that keeps customers coming back. Use of insights and sophisticated technology will allow brands to understand how they can authentically add value to what is deemed important in their customers’ professional lives. An example—providing thought leadership in a compelling format that leverages new ways of interactive communication can provide the needed customer excitement that will forge entanglement—because the brand feels right and does right.

Major Development:

The ongoing shift in the customers’ behavior enforces a need for a constant and ongoing development in the brand’s communication to further deepen the relationship between the brand and its customers. New technology introductions provide opportunities for exciting new ways of communicating, such as using VR and AR for interactive storytelling, or introducing new services and products co-innovated with customers.

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