Realizing The Promise Of Contextual Customer Journeys

When you review the Web sites of email service providers, the most promoted email feature is frequently the ability to  orchestrate customer journeys specific to the context of the subscriber.

Many articles in this publication urge marketers to explore moving from campaign-based mail to building customer journeys. My firm believes the move to build a more contextual marketing approach will be one of the top 20 email marketing trends over the next few years.

With all this excitement (including my own), do marketers actually invest in building customer journeys and other types of contextual marketing? In most cases, the answer is a resounding “no.”

I talk to 20-30 different email marketing teams per quarter. Beyond two areas—(1) triggered messaging based on on-site behavior in retail; and (2) the use of customer journeys based on known itineraries in travel—most email programs consist largely of  scheduled, campaign-based mail. The technology is there, but the implementation is not.



So what is keeping marketers from building programs that help customers along their journey with the brand? I frequently hear two common problems (and witness a third). They are:

Insufficient staff: Email is a chronically under-resourced channel. Building customer journeys requires a lot of work compared to a campaign-based approach. Where is the marketing team going to find the time? How are they going to get the necessary investment?

Lack of contextual data: Obtaining real-time, cross-channel data about how each customer is interacting with Web sites, mobile applications, and in-store is difficult. In most cases, this first-party data is hard to find. Of more importance, subscribers spend a very small portion of their time on “first-party” resources like the company’s Web site or mobile apps. The client’s context the rest of the time is unknown.

Marketing vs. product mindset: Most marketers come from a world driven by a campaign calendar. Optimizing the segmentation, creative, calls to action, and offer is a major focus. But when building a customer journey, marketers need to think more like product managers and/or user-experience designers. They need to understand in depth the “job” that the customer needs to get done (e.g., “I need to decide where to go for my next family vacation and make reservations”) and the emotions around those jobs. The only way to do that is to talk to a lot of customers. Once that is understood, then marketers need to build a repeatable “product” that meets the needs of that customer.

So how is our industry going to overcome these barriers?   Let me suggest three ideas:

  1. More benchmarking/ROI case studies: Email marketers need to make a business case to senior management for the resources required to move beyond campaign-based mail. Believable benchmarks that are specific to the industry are hard to come by. If email service providers could offer better and more detailed benchmarks that include full costs and benefits and are specific to verticals, it would be easier to build a business case.
  2. Sharing data across marketers: Each marketer knows a little about the context that each subscriber/customer finds themselves in. If that data could be shared across marketers in an equitable and non-competitive manner, the amount of context could increase dramatically. Knowing that someone is shopping for a travel plug adapter and a passport case at one company could provide interesting context to an airline. Real-time information about location and device-type usage could be interesting as triggers for other customer journeys.
  3. Use the “Jobs to Be Done” framework for marketing: The Jobs to be Done (JTBD) Framework is a new(ish) framework used by product teams to build better products. At a high level, it asks what “job” the customer is “hiring” your product to do. Understanding the job to be done, how the decision was made to hire one product over another, and the emotions behind that decision are key to the method. Read this brief article by Anthony Ulwick for a description of how to “map” customer jobs as a marketing tool—it should give you some good ideas.

What do you think? What's holding back the realization of the promise of customer journeys and contextual marketing?

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