n = 1

I see dead marketing.

Strategies deeply rooted in average products for average people. Campaigns that haven’t answered the fundamental question: “who’s this for?” Promotions desperately (and pointlessly) trying to out-Amazon Amazon. Programs that reek of me-too-ness.

It’s never been a good idea to promulgate the undifferentiated, the uninteresting, the irrelevant. But today that nonsense will get you killed.

When the power has shifted to the consumer, when there is little scarcity of product, information and access, when top-line growth must increasingly come from stealing market share, tried and true, one-size-fits all approaches are dying.

“N = everybody marketing”–i.e. the mass marketing that is the centerpiece of most marketers plans and the overwhelming consumer of their budgets–has the advantage of being efficient and comparatively easy to execute. It also has the pesky little problem of not working very well, if at all.

If you have not embraced a treat different customers differently philosophy, the odds are pretty good that you are falling behind. And every day that you procrastinate it only gets worse.

“But investing in mass-customization and personalization is really hard” you say. Perhaps. But what’s hardest of all–what’s really going to suck–is getting fired or having your company go out of business completely because you fail to change.

True “n = 1 marketing” may be unachievable any time soon for many brands, in every circumstance. But in a world where mass is ending and the power of the individual and the tribe is rising, where being intensely relevant and remarkable is the ONLY thing that creates a signal amidst the noise, for me, it’s pretty clear in which direction you should be heading.

Oh, and I’d hurry if I were you.

The shopkeeper at scale

Today marketers talk about personalization as some new Holy Grail. It’s hardly new.

Years ago, one-to-one marketing was a core practice of local shopkeepers everywhere. You know, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. The shopkeepers of yore would uniquely identify their customers, interact with them to understand their wants and desires and then customize their offering to meet those needs. The best customers got the best treatment. The notion of treating different customers differently was common and these shopkeepers enjoyed huge market share.

Fast forward many decades and the shopkeeper model has largely been displaced by national chains that lean heavily on one-size-fits-all business models steeped in efficiency over effectiveness.

Yet as the present reality of slow growth markets becomes clear, as fewer and fewer store openings present themselves, as the easy growth from launching and optimizing e-commerce starts to subside, the tide is turning.

Slowly, we are starting to see brands that understand that the majority of future growth must come from stealing market share. Growing share of wallet in meaningful ways requires a more intensely relevant and remarkable customer experience rooted in a “know me, show me you know me, show me you value me” set of capabilities.

More and more, it’s about understanding how to replicate the old-timey shopkeeper feeling at scale. It’s about using deep customer insight and technology to transcend the self-imposed limitations of the mass industrial model that characterizes so many businesses today.

The good news is that the core technology and other supporting capabilities necessary to become a shopkeeper at scale now exists–and is improving all the time. The bad news is it doesn’t happen unless you make a choice and make a commitment.

But did it get the right laugh?

During the recent Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special, Mike Myers made fun of founder and producer Lorne Michael’s legendary pickiness by evoking his best Dr. Evil inspired impression and saying  “well, it got a laugh, but did it get the right laugh?”

Of course, it’s easy to challenge–or simply ignore–those who lapse into overly theoretical frameworks (guilty) or who can be relentlessly particular about how something should play out (guilty again).

Then again, it’s also to see marketers who obsess about the size of their database, how many folks their emails touch or the sheer number of impressions from a TV ad, when it’s not reach they really want but engagement and impact.

Then again, social media is filled with people who frantically collect friends and followers–and blindly follow-back themselves–when it’s often merely a meaningless quest to grow a number totally devoid of true connection.

Then again, organizations hold on to mass market strategies, throwing money and time at bad prospects, promiscuous shoppers and demonstrably unprofitable relationships, when a more focused strategy that treats different customers differently is what makes far more sense.

Perhaps asking ourselves whether we’re getting the right laugh isn’t such a silly question.

Omni-channel: Myths, distortions and, yeah, that’s just silly

Let me be clear: I’m pretty into all things omni-channel. Get me started talking about creating a single view of the customer, silo-busting, frictionless commerce, creating a seamless experience, etc. you might want to order a pizza. We could be here for a while.

I was named the VP of Multi-channel Integration at Sears way back in 1999. I led multi-channel initiatives and enterprise customer analytics at the Neiman Marcus Group from 2004-2008. I’ve written dozens of related posts and given numerous speeches on the topic during the last few years. I’m a believer.

Yet much of what passes as inspired strategy on the part of brands extolling their new-found “omni-ness” is, well, let’s just say it ranges between being disingenuous and outright foolhardy. And then there are the legions of analysts, pundits, consultants and software providers peddling a guaranteed path to customer-centricity nirvana. Much is hype. Some is just plain dumb. Here’s an attempt to move toward more “truthiness.”

  1. You don’t really mean “omni.” “Omni-channel” means “all” or “every” and typically refers to both channels for communications and for transactions. Do you really intend to sell on cruise ships? In airports? How about door-to-door sales? Are you going to do infomercials? I didn’t think so. What you really mean is expanding your marketing and sales channels to those essential for the acquisition, growth and retention of key consumer segments–and being really good at doing it. A rush to invest in omni-channel without an actionable segmentation–and without understanding which levers are really the most important to hone in on–is a license to lose money and waste precious time.
  2. Omni-channel customers are not your best customers. Chances are it’s the other way around. And causality matters. A lot. The customers that already trust your brand are often the early adopters of new media and new places to buy. There is a dangerous false narrative that suggests that simply by becoming omni-channel a world of new sales will open to you. As Kevin Hillstrom has pointed out, many companies that have gone omni-channel have failed to improve their business. This is usually because the brand’s core is weak and merely adding more places to research and buy does not fix the underlying issues (see Sears). The best multi-channel strategies are rooted in a deep understanding of current customer behavior–and prioritize opportunities to stem defection, address new customer acquisition barriers and build add-on sales. A sensible growth strategy has clear building blocks, not a mad rush into e-commerce or rolling-out the next bright and shiny mobile or social media application.
  3. You say you want a revolution. Yet, organizational and data silos abound. Yet, analysis of most promotions still have a single channel focus. Yet, much of your marketing remains mass, rather than personalized. The underlying move to omni-channel is about customer-centricity. As long as you hold on to traditional metrics, silo-ed organizational structures and rely on fragmented data and batch, blast and hope marketing programs, not much is really changing.
  4. Confusing necessary with sufficient. To be sure, more and more customers are becoming cross-channel shoppers and, particularly with the rapid growth of mobile devices, the distinction between e-commerce and physical retail is blurring. Certain “omni” capabilities like order online, pick up in the store are becoming base expectations. It’s hard to imagine that many retailers will survive, much less thrive, without robust integration capabilities and compelling web and mobile offerings. But far too many brands think that by adding these newish features they are doing enough. They’re not. Many of these capabilities are becoming table-stakes. In other cases, they are expensive and complicated “nice to have’s.” What you need to do to keep pace is not the same as what you need to do to become differentiated and remarkable. Confuse this at your own peril.
  5. New hybrid-models are genius. The press is eating up Warby Parker’s, Bonobos and many other e-tailers move into physical locations and raving about their productivity numbers. First, this isn’t new (see Williams-Sonoma). Second, the move into actual stores had to happen. Over 3 year ago I was sitting with the CEO of one of these companies and asked him when they would think about opening stores. He answered: “we will never have physical stores.” Now he’s on CNBC singing their praises. Did I have the gift of prophecy? Of course not; the move was totally foreseeable given the known economics and limitations of pure-play e-commerce. Lastly, what would be remarkable about these hybrid-models’ sale productivity in their initial forays into the physical realm is if they did NOT do huge numbers. Bear in mind, they have opened stores in trade areas where they already have a density of customers and are in very small locations. Comparing their initial results to more mature specialty stores is silly. Comparing them to say, the top 2 or 3 bays of Neiman Marcus’ beauty counters in the Beverly Hills, Bal Harbour and Michigan Avenue stores is more apt (hint: it would be well over $3,000/sf). I am a repeat customer of the two brands I mentioned and believe they have bright futures. But let’s be careful of false positives. There is much more of this story to play out.

Omni-channel is a nice catch phrase, and there can be no question that we are witnessing an incredible transformation in how consumers shop and how brands need to do business. The status quo is not an option, but neither is a blind rush into all things “omni.”

The future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed. The path you choose is critical.

Batch, blast and hope

No, batch, blast and hope is not the name of a personal injury law firm. It is, however, a realistic description of all too many marketing campaigns these days.

Despite all the talk about deep customer engagement, increased relevance and enhanced personalization, the sad reality is a huge percentage of direct mail and email marketing is still mostly one-size-fits-all (save for perhaps a few tweaks).

It’s not hard to understand why.

Large scale blasts are easy to execute. They reach a lot of people. They’re cheaper than mass customization or true one-to-one marketing campaigns. And it’s pretty simple to measure incremental ROI and generate comparisons to what we’ve always done.

Of course, many of us know that opt-out rates are climbing while click-through and conversion rates are sinking. But when email is “free” and direct mail is dirt cheap why not keep the execution straightforward and the spigots open?

Well, maybe because what used to count as “working” is just as irrelevant as most of our messages?

Maybe because one-size-fits-all just adds to the noise that consumers are increasingly tuning out?

Maybe because in a slow growth world if you aren’t commanding greater share of attention you have little chance of gaining share of wallet.

Batch, blast and hope may be an amusing name for a fictional law firm, but it sure isn’t a marketing strategy for future success. Mostly it’s a prescription for failure.

Don’t you know who I am?

It’s one thing to expect special treatment, to have all sorts of extras heaped upon us by virtue of some earned status.

Good marketers take care to sort out who their best customers are and then focus on treating them differently in the quest for greater retention and brand advocacy. When we’re not recognized–and then somehow rewarded–for our loyalty, we feel slighted. However, unless the trust was egregiously broken, because of a strong relationship, we’re likely to give the brand another chance.

Bad marketers rely too heavily on one-size-fits-all strategies. They favor the easy over the good. They never make it along the “know me, show me you know me, show me you value me” continuum, because they fail at the very first step.

Yesterday I got an email from Pottery Barn Kids offering me a 15% discount for an online purchase. Now I haven’t bought anything from the Pottery Barn brands in a very long time. But, given my recent divorce and move, I have bought a fair amount from their sister brands (Williams-Sonoma, WS Home and West Elm).

Ignoring that it’s fairly easy to enhance my customer profile with externally purchased data, they should already know quite a bit about me, my shopping behavior and propensities. And I can assure you that absolutely nothing suggests that I would be a good prospect for this offer. In fact, my kids are 17 and 21.

If the marketers at Williams-Sonoma aren’t sharing data across the brands, they need to. If the folks at Pottery Barn used any kind of model, it’s deeply flawed. Either way, they just blew it.

Like most of us, I don’t need my mailbox filled up with irrelevant offers. For brands without any real degree of loyalty it’s far too easy to become victims of the “unsubscribe” button.

In the growing battle for share of attention, when you don’t show me that you know who I am, any little bit of permission you might have had is likely to evaporate. And chances are that permission lost, is permission never to be re-gained.