Direct Approach: Ask and ye shall find

It is not necessarily the answers gathered from digital consumer research that can lead to success. It's asking the right questions in the first place.

Digital works best if we use customer data to inform it - everyone knows that, right?

Well, yes, maybe, but it's not always as easy as that. There needs to be a mindset change. Digital might still be considered a new medium by some, but that doesn't mean the old laws of marketing don't apply.

We need to approach our digital strategy in the same way we've always approached our direct marketing strategies. In other words, when a customer tells us something - be that explicitly on a form or implicitly through their actions - we should always ensure those learnings are incorporated into the way we interact with them.

The customer is no longer a passive target that you have to provoke a desired response from. Today, customers choose to actively engage with your brand. They will happily share a wealth of information with you - so long as they know that what you have to offer is relevant.

So, how do you build a relationship with someone you've never met? We know that with every keystroke, click or purchase your customers make online, they leave a data trail to follow. Tapping into your database allows you to see what they have been up to so that you can put together a rough customer profile.

There is data around what a customer bought, which e-mails they opened, where they went on your website, how many times they complained, whether they prefer you to call them in the evening or e-mail them in the morning - all manner of information that you can use to help determine how best to engage with them in the future.

However, there is one thing that may hold us up here. There is a lot of data generated in the digital world with all those clicks, and we do mean a lot.

Where do you start? And then what do you do as a result of what you find?

As marketers, we are bad at asking the right questions. What is it you want the data to tell you? What specific element of your marketing are you trying to address with a piece of analysis?

All too often, we make this question vague and can end up trying to manipulate vast quantities of information, using huge, expensive pieces of kit in the hope that, suddenly, as if by magic, some invaluable learning will just pop out when we least expect it.

It won't.

You need to know what you want to achieve before you start. This could be anything from which banner ads give you the best customers, which message you should use in your e-mails, what order to send e-mails in, which products to sell to which people ... We could go on.

And then we need to know what to do with what we find.

Don't worry that you won't always have a categorical answer for why customers are behaving in a certain way and, from that, a solution as to what you should do next. You can spend hours, even days, trawling through every detail of their transactions, looking for something profound that means you can create a whole new website, or set of campaigns, when there might not be a strand you can work with at all.

At times such as these, you should resist loading your sales "hook" with more bait until you have something more concrete.

Remember, if we can't tell exactly what our customers are doing, we can use a generic message or wait until we have better data before we engage with them. Be pragmatic. You don't need to have all of the answers to make use of your data.

Being pragmatic means that we can accommodate the bulk of our customers quickly, and then spend time building and refining our communications strategy. This means we can get some quick wins in place, as well as the foundations for long-term benefit, without looking like Big Brother or getting it wrong when dealing with customers or prospects.

This will address two fundamental issues in the sales cycle: trust and fear. Using the data appropriately allows you to make nervous prospects feel comfortable by slowly engaging with them over a period of time without them having to make any kind of commitment. Providing that you're using their data to be genuinely useful and relevant, your consumers will be more willing to impart more personal information in return.

This then allows you to build an increasingly detailed profile of their preferences and needs. This is merely the start of the ongoing process of the exchange and reciprocal learning that is eCRM.

You may recall that, courtesy of Douglas Adams and a little hitchhiker's guide, we found that the answer to the "ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything" was 42.

It took the Deep Thought computer 7.5 million years to work that out.

Unfortunately, it didn't tell us what the question was, so no-one knew what to do with the answer when they had it.

Digital can give you lots of data and, seemingly, a lot of answers.

The lessons of direct marketing teach us to look to a more fundamental truth: it's not the digital answers you can generate that matter; it's the questions you ask that make the difference.

- Mike Spicer is the group managing director, Craig Walmsley is the group head of digital and Sue MacLure is the head of eCRM of EHS Brann