Hold on to what you've got

This article first appeared in the print edition of CMO magazine in May 2017.

As the marketing zeitgeist evolves to encompass the promise of behavioural segmentation, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence, a great deal will be written about what works and what doesn’t. But there’s a huge risk that we lose sight of what really matters to customers as we plot our path forwards.

As recently as ten years ago, I recall having to persuade senior marketers of the rationale for user experience design. It was somewhat ironic that they held a new iPhone in their hands as we explained that a great user experience was fundamental to user adoption and business growth - we had to fight hard to carve out the appropriate investment in UX, and the customer research that underpins it.

Fortunately, this focus on user experience itself has evolved greatly in the years since, fuelled at least in part by the success and techniques of Silicon Valley. Design Thinking entered our lexicon, with its mandate around research and experimentation, followed by Lean UX driving products into market as quickly as possible where they could be validated by real users. These tools and techniques have proven their value many times over, down to the bottom line and up to the boardroom, and combined with basic data analytics and A/B testing we had ourselves a method for continuous (and impressive) improvement.

Which brings us back to the more recent focus on behavioural segmentation, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence. All of these are already proven to drive growth, unlock efficiency and inform strategy, and they’re rightfully taking their place in marketing best practice. However, this focus on numbers has the potential to come at a cost, and it comes down to this: if the underlying customer experience is poor to begin with, then no amount of data analysis is going to save you. If you’ve got a crap product, no-one’s going to visit regardless of how many incremental, data driven, automated improvements you make and how much personalisation you build in.

It’s absolutely critical that the human factor is retained during the design of the baseline product in the first place. In some cases, data can tell you what people are doing, but it’s only with direct human-to-human contact that we’ll understand why they’re doing it. We need to understand these motivations to build great products. Appropriate time and budget needs to be protected at all costs, or else the product will fail and damage the brand in the process.

Google and Amazon are great examples of companies that have done a great job at this. Both started with an indispensable product, and have since experimented on top of this. It’s remarkable in this day and age that hardly any retailers have managed to emulate Amazon’s cross sell functionality as effectively as they have. And in Google, executives take a very dim view of any hypothesis not backed up by real data. But they can afford this luxury, because they already know that they have great products and can afford to focus on iteration.

But it’s also noteworthy that they don’t just do this. Both organisations are constantly innovating and producing new products, and applying the right balance of data driven thinking and user centred discipline. It’s an excellent balance - use data to inform strategy, use humans to design products, use data to segment and predict in real time, and human invention again to identify new opportunities and drive growth.

All things told, while the world of data is advancing at a furious pace, we need to retain a balanced approach to marketing otherwise it’ll be a pyrrhic victory. Remember that commerce has always been based on relationships, and humanity will always have a role to play at the heart of business. Empowering your User Experience team to continue playing a leading role will ensure you keep the customer satisfied while you capitalise on the data-driven opportunity.