As marketing becomes increasingly dominated by digital technologies and artifical intelligence, Andrew Stephen urges marketers to be more human.
Whenever I talk to a group of marketing practitioners, particularly if I have been rash enough to refer to ‘consumers’ without qualification, there’s always someone who will argue, ‘but I work in business-to-business. Marketing is very different in my sector.’
My answer is always the same. B2B marketing is in principle exactly the same as B2C: both are fundamentally human-to-human.
I know why people think they are different. Businesses are supposed to be rational. They have formal decision-making processes that require employees to justify the money about to be spent and consider the eventual ‘return’. It should be impossible for a business to make an impulse purchase in response to a Facebook advertisement.
But even the most rational of businesses is made up of people, and people have private lives and human biases and impulses. And they bring all of these human characteristics to work – which is one of the things that makes organisational life so interesting and enjoyable. It also means that they bring them to the decision-making process, whatever their role in that process.
Remembering this is important for all marketers. Being a successful marketer is never just about being able to use the latest marketing tools. It is also about how much you really understand your customers and – importantly – about how you talk about them within the organisation. You need to gain and wield influence internally in order to address the challenges of the environment in which you are operating.
For example, when people talk about the ‘challenges’ of technology, what they really mean are the challenges of people’s relationships with technology. And for the marketer, these challenges appear both within and outside the organisation.
The speed of technological change, for example, is not intrinsically a problem. What is a problem is the number of people at the top of the organisation who hear about the latest development on the morning news and demand to know instantly what changes you are planning to make in response. Your colleagues in different areas of marketing are probably doing the same. And even worse are the people outside the marketing department who tell you what you should be doing: everyone’s a marketer these days, apparently.
The other side of this coin is what I call ‘shiny new toy syndrome’ – an affliction that can affect marketers and non-marketers alike. An exciting new technology or platform emerges and executives are dying to use it, regardless of how well it answers business or customer needs. At best, you end up with a marketing approach that is irrelevant (attempting to target business decision-makers on a social media platform used mostly by teenagers, for example). At worst you actively destroy value.
It can be tempting, therefore, to ignore human ideas altogether. One of the most appealing aspects of digital marketing can be the precision-targeting enabled by programmatic advertising. With so much data behind it, who is going to question the wisdom of an algorithm? Up to a point, this is true, but there are still risks. A story broke last year about advertisements for major brands appearing next to videos promoting terrorism. More recently, some UK universities discovered that they had been unwittingly funding anti-vaccination campaigns through advertising on videos linked to the discredited former doctor Andrew Wakefield. Presumably these videos appeared to have content relating to ‘health’: you could not expect an algorithm to have followed the ins and outs of a major medical research controversy. The advertisements have now been removed, but the incident shows how important it is not to let unbridled technology run away with your marketing.
So how can you as a marketer be more human, especially when your job is increasingly digital?
First, it is about knowledge. I don’t mean that you need to understand the details of how a new technology works, but you do need to know what it does and how it interacts with other technologies that you or your customers may come into contact with. So you’re not just asking what it does, but who is using it, when and how. How does it relate to another piece of technology that your colleagues in another team are focusing on? What might be the unintended consequences of increased use of this technology? Are they what you and your customers really want?
Second, you must look to the future. Events only seem to be moving at breakneck speed because they so often catch us unawares. Adopting a future-focused mindset will allow you to plan and adapt better to changes at any point in the system.
Finally, learn to love those biases and impulses that make us human, the parts of us that like spontaneity and surprise. That is where you get authentic engagement. And those are the parts that an algorithm can never predict.