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At the recently concluded Dreamforce 2013 in San Francisco, Salesforce shared its vision on some forward-thinking technologies and ideas that will change the way businesses operate in the new few years. The main message was something many marketers are familiar with: put the customer first.

The themes that emerged at the four-day event provide a preview of the opportunities and challenges that marketers will face not just in 2014, but also in the next decade ahead.Here are some of my key takeaways from the conference, and what they mean for consumer insights:

  1. Using personalization to optimize the customer journey

Jim Eup, Principal Product Marketing at Exact Target, emphasized that each customer has a unique and dynamic path towards a purchase, and marketers should consider this fact when crafting their strategies. As audiences become more fragmented, the spray-and-pray approach becomes less effective.

Predictive content, a cutting-edge technology that pushes the limits of personalization, caught my attention in particular. The concept is simple, but it's based on an understanding that people's needs are dynamic. Predictive content allows marketers to render content differently depending on users' interactions. For example, if I deploy an email campaign on Monday, the final content that the customer will get on Wednesday will depend on his or her interactions with the company in between those two days.

What this means for consumer insights: Personalization is the Holy Grail of digital marketing: if you can deliver the right message at the right time in the right context, you are more likely to persuade customers to buy. But personalization requires relevance: a single brand interaction, for instance, doesn't always equate to intent to buy. Even more important, with personalization, brands walk the fine line between being relevant and being intrusive. To get the right balance, brands need to talk to their customers and determine the factors and issues that personalization presents.

  1. Engaging customers to foresee technological changes

Several speakers noted that marketers are already leading the charge in the Internet of Customers. "Who thought 20 years ago marketing would be a technology business?Û asked Meg Whitman, HP chief executive. Lynn Vojvodich, Exact Target's CMO, also emphasized how cloud technologies improve the customer journey by allowing people to access services and content wherever they happen to be. talked about the "Internet of Customers,Û a third wave of computing where everything from smartphones to toothbrushes will connect people to the web anywhere they happen to be. "You have got to be ready to sell, to service, to market to your customers regardless of where the customer touch point is,Û chief executive Marc Benioff said during his speech.

Connected products are clearly the future: the challenge for brands is providing integrated and seamless experiences across these devices.

What this means for consumer insights: Delivering a seamless experience requires more than just technical know-how. For marketers to be able to take advantage of emerging technologies such as cloud and mobile computing, they need to truly understand their customers' needs and attitudes. More importantly, as new devices can potentially alter people's habits, brands need to engage customers in the long-term so they can foresee trends and technological changes that may affect how they offer their products and services.

  1. Using big data as the starting point in customer engagement

Statistician Nate Silver cautioned that not all data is created equal. He made a compelling argument that big data shouldn't be the main focus for marketers. He went on that contrary to popular belief, it was, insights - not data - that drove Obama's successful presidential run. It was insights that helped Obama's team create content that resonated with the voting public.

But how do you turn big data into insights? Killing data silos is key. Creating a culture of testing and optimization and injecting it in all of your marketing efforts can lead to actionable insights.

What this means for consumer insights: We recognize big data's potential in identifying significant trends in demographics and consumer behavior that brands need to be aware of. But big data has limitations. Big data (including social media and transactional data) is a good starting point, but brands need to then engage their customers to validate their hunches and understand why people do what they do.

  1. Creating relevant content for various target audiences

Your audience and your content are two sides of the same coin. In one of presentations, Ryan Skinner, a Forrester analyst who focuses on content marketing, was quoted: "Without an audience, content has nothing, [and] without content, an audience has nothing.Û

Many marketers confess to having significant challenges with content: not having enough of it, not having the budget for it, and not having the right type of it. But Dreamforce 2013 reminded marketers that useful content requires more than just developing it. What marketers need is content that's going to engage their target audience in a meaningful way.

What this means for consumer insights: The first step in creating engaging content is to truly get to know the people you want to reach. Will a one-size-fits-all content strategy work for your brand, or do you need distinct content strategies for different customer segments? What kind of content is a must-read (or must-view) for each segment, and what will they skip or overlook? Consumer insights can help answer these types of questions, helping ensure the success of your content marketing efforts.

While Dreamforce is in many ways futuristic, the underlying message from many of the high-profile talks emphasized the enduring importance of consumer insights. As we enter the impending new wave of the computing era (what Salesforce is calling the Internet of Customers), marketers and IT will need to work more closely together in ensuring that they understand and meet the needs of their customers.


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