Providing individual consumers with the best possible experience is quickly becoming the top priority for brands, even to the point where experience outshines product quality as a main competitive differentiator. This is confirmed by a recent Gartner survey, in which 86% companies listed customer experience as the main factor for gaining a competitive advantage, compared with 36% in 2012.
The catalyst for this evolution is a new type of audience. Welcome to the era of the entitled consumer, who expects nothing less than the finest customer experiences. Customers demand only the most relevant information, the most authentic assistance and recommendations, plus the ultimate service experience and exclusive products at unbeatable prices. Just for them and via any channel, in any location, and at any time they please. Brand loyalty and repeat purchases may be in the cards, but have to be earned and cultivated, and guess who’s doing all the heavy lifting? (Hint: it’s not the customers.)
Out with the old, in with the new
Old-school marketing operated on neatly defined models. Before digital transformation disrupted all concepts of customer engagement, traditional customer lifecycles followed clearly delineated paths: the customer advanced through carefully delineated stages of a cycle, starting with discovery/awareness of a brand or product and ending in actual purchase (conversion), followed by customer loyalty and advocacy. Once completed, the cycle repeats.
Digital marketers are now waking up to a new digital marketing playing field where it is the consumer who controls the message. As Scott Cook, Director of Procter & Gamble, famously said: ‘A brand is no longer what we tell consumers it is: It is what consumers tell each other it is”. Current research confirms this trend: In the Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey, consumers mostly trust recommendations from someone they know (83%), consumer opinions posted online (66%), and editorial content (66%). Only 56% of respondents trust the content of emails they signed up for, and would rather listen to friends or other customers.
Add the fact that what used to be a linear, structured customer journey, is now fragmented into miniscule micro-journeys that follow no distinguishable journey map or sequential order. Thumb-tied to their smartphones, consumers are constantly pursuing journey goals such as product research or price comparison on-the-go and compartmentalised into micro-goals. And conversion happens when consumers are ready… or not.
Speaking of conversion, it is no longer reigning supreme as the crowning KPI of customer lifecycle marketing. Conversions are no longer indicative of successful marketing programs. Relationships mean more than purchases in today’s consumer-centric marketing landscape, and that shifts the focus to a new set of metrics measuring the lifetime value and level of engagement with customers in the long run.
Today’s customers are a tough act to follow, especially when it comes to assigning them definite stages in the customer lifecycle. Depending on the situation, consumers may be at different stages in the cycle for one and the same brand or product. This is where real-time, contextual data on preference and behaviour helps to create laser-focused messages that hit home.
The actual nail in the coffin for pre-digital lifecycle models is the fact that, powered by always-on mobile connectivity, engagement now happens in real time. Consumers are constantly engaged in a dialogue with brands, seamlessly switching roles between message recipients (push marketing) and active explorers of brands and products (pull marketing). Accelerated by trends such as omnicommerce – the ability to make purchases directly via social media, messenger apps or email messages – conversion can happen instantly, and across many channels.
New customer lifecycle models
We are reaching a paradigm shift in customer engagement, where the consumer comes first. Instead of starting with a communication channel or a product, marketers use the individual customer’s real-time situation as the starting point. So instead of applying cookie-cutter personas to segment consumers into demographics with similar lifecycle status that are then spoon-fed the same standard messages, consumer-first marketing relies on state-of-the-art customer intelligence powered by rich data.
This data is stored in a universal consumer profile which is constantly updated with real-time behaviour and purchase data, augmented by location data and recent brand interactions in order to pinpoint exactly where customers are, what kind of information they need and which channel is best for reaching them right now. And in order to really place consumers at the very centre of each interaction, marketers need to embrace a new model for customer lifecycles.
The next generation of customer lifecycle models needs to deliver on two fronts: On the one hand, these models need to incorporate the purchase history, previous interactions, and entire relationship between consumers and brands. And on the other hand, they have to include the engagement with consumers across various channels as it unfolds in real time.
As we speak, brands and companies are striving to build the ultimate connection with their audiences. Customer intelligence is emerging as the secret sauce that gives today’s winning companies the edge when it comes to staying closely connected with their audiences throughout today’s complex customer lifecycles. The companies outpacing the competition know how to deliver relevant interactions at every step of the way – and never drop the ball or leave customers out in the cold.