Is it really ten years since The Cluetrain Manifesto announced how the internet had changed the relationship between brands and consumers? Only a little less since everyone jumped on the bandwagon, quoted it in pitches and explained how marketing would now be a dialogue, that we'd be recognising consumers as "human beings, not demographic sectors"?
The world has moved on since. The public is increasingly marketing-literate and cynical, but we have more exciting ways to engage with people than ever before. And now brands such as Aviva are using their classic broadcast advertising to shout about how much they "get it".
But where is the evidence that they actually do?
We need to start with the consumer. Hardly a new thought. But do we really do it? Consistently? Because it's about more than having a single customer view, identifying core segments, plotting the customer journey and so on. The latter has become a marketing standard, but the truth is that it's still rarely seen from the customer's point of view. Often it remains a functional mapping process that enables organisations to be more efficient at selling stuff. Too often, we direct marketers focus only on the functional steps that people go through and the immediate commercial opportunity that these deliver at that given moment.
But, in tough times, hitting the numbers is more important than ever. Taking a more rounded view of the customer journey represents the greatest opportunity to build deeper and valuable relationships over time.
Take the travel market - it's well known that many people book their next holiday soon after returning home from the last. That's when they are instantly hit with a load of sales messages about where to go next.
But just recognising the motivations behind their behaviour - the mild depression on coming back to the everyday, the need to have something new to look forward to - gives a much richer platform for communication. Give something back - help people preserve holiday memories for longer. Don't just fire out deals, inspire with exciting and relevant choices for the next big trip.
We can capitalise on commercial opportunities with service messages that strengthen the relationship with the brand. But the point is not just to do this by communication. We have to take a fresh look, seeking new ways for the brand to fulfil people's needs at every stage of the journey.
We need to break down the silos. Something else we all know, but again, how often does it really happen?
Clarity about success criteria is essential, but aren't we being blinkered about how we apply it? Responsibility for the brand sits with this group, sales with this one, loyalty there - and now elsewhere for social media outreach, application development and so on.
But consumers judge brands on every interaction. No-one's thinking: "This one counts - it's a brand message. This doesn't - it's just another e-mail trying to sell me something."
Again, we must view the customer journey in full - and start with what consumers want, emotionally as well as functionally. It may be a specific product or service. It may just be support or information. But it may also be a richer experience - entertainment or, more powerfully, additional tools and services that are actually useful. All these points of engagement are the expression of the brand.
It makes no difference how these ideas are executed, whether in digital or traditional media. And sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference - such as recognising that people going on a cruise for the first time spend their first hours exploring the ship and then discover that, in the meantime, the savvy repeat cruisers have snapped up all the tables at the best restaurants. The first experience flips into a negative, wasting all that acquisition spend. So we keep asking ourselves ... can direct marketing be the most powerful marketing influence on the brand?
Given that we interpret DM as encompassing anything that constitutes a personalised experience of a brand, the answer has to be a resounding yes.
As "direct" agencies and clients, it's easy just to focus on response, conversion and ROI and "our bit of the customer journey" that is about crunching numbers and data, but we also have a critical role in building relationships between brands and customers.
In particular, applications are an opportunity to put the brand experience in people's hands and allow them to interact and share. Make the experience enjoyable, rather than just rational. Suddenly, direct marketing is fun, engaging, interesting - it's emotive.
And it is happening further upstream, as applications open a door to communicate with people in a direct, tailored way before they've shown any interest in our products. But we need to demonstrate value - people are savvy enough to slam that door shut unless they see a reason to leave it open.
And while classic member-get-member mechanics may remain, we have the opportunity to create true advocates who want to talk about our brand without need of bribery. We can enrich the experience - and provide existing advocates with the tools and the language they need to "sell" on our behalf in the ever-increasing array of channels they have at their disposal.
New tools give us an opportunity to engage people across more of the journey than ever before. An opportunity to combine behavioural data and human insight to deliver more powerful and interesting content.
And as high-speed internet access becomes standard in mobile as well as home, we can deliver richer, more engaging experiences than were ever possible in broadcast - in a direct, one-to-one environment.
It's ours for the taking. Consumer behaviours and attitudes have changed dramatically over the past ten years and so have their expectations. Much of that change strengthens the core arguments of The Cluetrain Manifesto. But marketing has been slow to really embrace that change.
If we do embrace it, there's a massive opportunity to become the biggest marketing influence on the brand.
We need to dissolve the barriers between "traditional" and more "technical" creativity, between "brand", "response" and "CRM" planning and delivery - and help our clients to do the same.
We must become more emotionally intelligent in the way we talk to people, to put them at the heart of our marketing strategies, and look at the customer journey holistically to identify how we can strengthen the brand relationship at every stage.
And we need to revise our measurement to demonstrate the value we deliver to the brand and how this delivers long-term, as well as immediate, commercial benefit.
Best get started then.
- Mike Cullis is the managing partner and Darren Burnett is the data planning partner at Elvis.