Opinion: Brands must rekindle the romance with their fans

Nelson Freitas is chief strategy officer at Wunderman New York.

For a long time, marketers and advertisers have lived like kings. We decided what people loved and hated, what would make them cry or laugh, based on what we thought we knew about them from survey data or focus groups. We sent our messages out and assumed they would resonate with the right people. If our brilliant campaigns didn’t move sales numbers, maybe it was a failure in some other part of the business, or maybe the state of the economy was to blame. Who knew? Who cared?

The old ways are dead. In a world with infinite media choices, marketers are no longer kings. Audiences are. What’s more, our successes and failures are no longer difficult to track. In a digital world, we know whether an audience is ignoring us, hates our guts, or loves our message so much that seeing it made them buy something immediately. We can’t afford to bother potential customers with messages that don’t matter to them. Instead, we need to speak only to the people who want to hear from us and give them a message they value.

To do that, we have to know our audiences on a much deeper level than basic demographics or even what they say they like and value. There’s a vast gulf between the preferences someone admits to a survey-taker and what they actually do. In the digital age, we know exactly what people buy, how they spend their time, and what­ they read – and that’s the only thing that matters.

That notion may seem a little creepy, but it’s actually the exact opposite. Today, everyone is special and wants to tell his or her story – and brands are part of that story. We’ve all seen someone we know post a picture of food from some “awesome” restaurant they’ve tagged on Instagram (#bestmealever #sofull #pantsdontfit) or tweet angrily at the car rental agency that lost their reservation. The people who do these things don’t expect brands to politely look away. They want the restaurant to like the photo and the rental car agency better #apologize and offer a #solution, posthaste.

The expectations are no different for marketing. Customers expect digital marketers to know what differentiates them from the 2 billion other people on the planet with an Internet connection. For the first time in history, that’s actually possible.

Here’s how it works in practice. Suppose Company X relied on loyal, repeat users for the vast majority of its revenues but had noticed a startling wave of attrition among these die-hard customers. Clearly, the company would need to rekindle the romance with its biggest fans.

What makes for a great love affair? Talking for hours and thinking up grand gestures just to make the other person smile is a good place to start. So first, a marketer should do some in-depth analysis of users’ digital habits. Many companies obsess over reaching a group of 18- to 34-year-olds that they hope either already use their products or will in the future, and don’t give much further thought to targeting their messages. But by monitoring what users actually click on and read, Company X might learn not only that its core customers are college-educated professional women in their 50s but also that they love of fashion and beauty products, or devour news about design and home décor.

Next step: Use the new information to create an unforgettable grand gesture. In the past, marketers couldn’t do much more than offer coupons to show a company’s devotion. Self-serving? You bet. Boring? Certainly. But that product would have been the one thing marketers knew for sure their customers wanted. But by paying attention to what consumers actually do online, a marketer for Company X could offer fashion-conscious consumers access to a hot-trunk sale or give design gurus the opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind version of a product. In both cases, encouraging those who participate to share their experiences on social media would help spread the message even further.

I realize that this kind of customized messaging sounds expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Our cost per impression for one typical campaign was $3.25, compared to $37 for traditional mass media marketing. Even better, we got 1.1 billion impressions in front of daily users – more than 30 times the 35 million we were likely to reach through traditional mass marketing. That’s the beauty of digital. Forget the multimillion-dollar TV buys, and make full use of both analytics programs and the ever-improving algorithms embedded in marketing automation tools to streamline your digital outreach campaigns. You’ll save money and be more effective.

Crafting messages for highly specific audiences is something marketers have been able to do for some time now, but only recently have we been able to do it at scale – and that’s the game-changer. Someday, we’ll be able to tailor messages not just to ultra-specific groups but to individuals. If it seems excessive to slice the pie that thin, remember that the balance of power has shifted. Marketers are no longer the ones who dictate the conversation. We’re the ones who have to listen and learn to survive.


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