Relationships, not targeting

Relationships, not targeting




I love the Chelsea Flower Show. Getting my ticket for members day is like securing a ticket for the FA Cup Final. (In fact, it’s better.) But like many other events, this year Chelsea Flower Show will be a virtual experience. There will be features on the designers and their own gardens, but no show gardens built at Chelsea.

What happens to the thousands of beautiful plants that independent nurseries have spent months growing for the show? It would be a tragedy if they went to waste. Which is why the Royal Horticultural Society is asking the public to buy them. It’s a superb idea, supporting growers in tough times and giving people a little growing part of the Show. It made me feel warm and happy. So of course I tried the link of the Show page.

It wasn’t live. I couldn’t buy any plants.

This story neatly illustrates two aspects of digital customer journeys.

The first is how much we depend on them, especially during the lockdown. Whether it’s a broken link or Ocado’s site falling over, it’s a shock when things just don’t work.

The second is how tone-deaf most of them seem today.

The pandemic is becoming, as Yuval Noah Harari has put it, a ‘test of citizenship’, highlighting the moral and ethical dimensions of our choices. We are thinking about who we buy from, who needs help, who is missing out.

Some businesses – and they seem to be the small ones, equipped with a basic email blaster and a dose of passion for what they do – are rising to the occasion, sending out heartfelt, human-to-human messages.

Others … not so much. A recent automated email from a large insurance company began, “Dear Ms Deput, we care about our customers’ opinions…” And I thought, yeah. Right.

From the early days of email marketing to the recent rise of sophisticated cloud-based CRM platforms, the rise of automated customer and prospect journeys has been unstoppable.

They offer many benefits. They are built on testing and logic, and are targetable and measurable. They are designed to respond to people’s online behaviour. They offer unrivalled visibility. For those in the business of customer acquisition, they have been our main tool, almost totally displacing offline media.

But at the moment it seems that Covid-19 is exposing the flaws in our industry paradigm.

The pandemic has broken many of the journeys that we – and the economy – took for granted. The journey for buying a house online is broken when people can’t move. The journey for booking a holiday is broken when no one is going anywhere. What’s the point of targeting consumers with next best actions when they can’t take any action?

Even more importantly, it’s starting to look as though we’ve been filling our journeys with the wrong things.

The new systems we use focus on targeting, automation and efficiency – and increasingly it seems that content doesn’t matter.

Enthralled by the tech, we are fixated with chivvying consumers along to do what we want them to do next. And we took our eye off what we were actually communicating. What did the content matter compared to the fact that we could target prospects so accurately? It’s no surprise that much of what the customer ‘relationship’ management industry produces looks as though it were written for robots by robots. We have ruthlessly excised charm, fellow feeling and humanity. There is no real attempt to make a connection beyond a shouted brand slogan.

The quest for efficiency has sent us down the wrong path. We know that even in the best of times consumers respond to emotional, human ads (see Lemon by Orlando Wood, for example). We know they respond to emotional, human TV or films. So why during the customer journeys brands create – and apparently only during these customer journeys – would they ever be moved by the cold and the dull?

Changing times mean we need to change our approach to automated communications

Our online consumers are getting used to a ‘new normal,’ a set of circumstances in which online tech has the potential to solve problems and help in new ways. We owe it to them to rigorously test the customer journeys we design, so the we genuinely help them – not frustrate them.
If Yuval Noah Harari is right, and we are looking at a new world built on wider society, we need to consider how we will reflect this in all of our communications.
Content matters at a time when people are trying to do their bit. As their sense of ethics is heightened, they will judge brands as much as by what they say as what they do.
We should be brutally honest with ourselves. Are we really creating content that feels right for these times (or, in fact, any times) – and are we taking account of how people are feeling right now? Not everyone is reading novels or doing Pilates online. Many are stacking shelves or out delivering the stuff we buy online. Many are worried about money. Now more than ever we need to put ourselves in their place.