Is technology the gating factor for marketing?

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Last month, I was on a keynote panel at the National Center for Database Marketing (NCDM).  The topic of the panel was “Evolving from Database Marketing to Customer Intelligence” and the discussion largely centered around the evolution of marketing into a bi-directional communication mechanism with customers across multiple channels and the challenges that brings.  An audience member asked the question, “Is technology the gating factor that prevents or slows marketers from embracing these changes?”   The panel differed on their responses.   Some felt, yes, technology was indeed an impediment to doing this well.     I and at least one other panelist disagreed.   

On the contrary, I think technology is actually the enabler of this sort of communication.  Much of the explosion in channels and interactivity has been driven by technological advances.  Yes, the technology may have empowered customers – in their ability to be more informed and to communicate with other customers therefore making marketers feel a little less powerful.   Yes, the balance of power may have changed a bit.   However, technology, when it is properly understood and deployed,  can also be leveraged to make sense of this fast changing world.   An example of this is text mining, which is enabling companies to sift through enormous quantities of unstructured data from call center transcripts and customer generated content in social media sites (which would historically have been wasted) and report these insights through conventional business intelligence tools and integrate it with more traditional forms of analysis.     This sort of insight can be more accurate, relevant, timely and actionable than traditional market research through focus groups or surveys. While it may not replace these traditional approaches it certainly can augment them.  Two companies that help with this sort of analysis are Autonomy  (http://www.autonomy.com) and Clarabridge (http://www.clarabridge.com), although there are many other players in this space as well.  

The gating factor in most companies is their inability to properly leverage the technology that is already available, not the lack of technology.    This inability can stem from a number of factors – organizational skills, e.g. market researchers who are wedded to the old way of doing things or organizational alignment, e.g. the analytics folks may not work seamlessly with the web team or the market research team.  It could also stem from outdated processes, e.g. there is simply no mechanism within marketing to listen and respond - the department is structured and built around  outbound communication, so there is no agility in the organization.    I talk to a number of marketers who are struggling with how best to incorporate these new channels without giving up their current processes or changing the organization.    Too often, the answer is to bring “experts” who do not understand the business or the organizational issues and don’t know how to get things done or move it along.    This approach is not a particularly promising one.   In most circumstances you are better off letting one of your up and coming stars take the lead in this regard, with outside help as appropriate.  There is a much higher chance to building internal credibility and support and, therefore, ensuring success.  

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