CMOs Must Bring Customer Focus Back to Digital Goals

Priorities: Technology's Influence Can't Trump Marketing's in Expanding Internet Strategy

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The CMO needs to take control of the corporate internet strategy. Why? To ensure that new technologies initiate and enhance customer relationships. This is going to require the CMO to argue that a major barrier to internet development is the dominant influence of technology over marketing. But it's crucial for company and brand survival.

The CMO's responsibility is to make certain the focal point of the company's vision is the customer. In the digital world, that vision has become blurred. Customer "understanding" needs to encompass the exploration of consumer needs, wants, attitudes and motivations. Today it is frequently limited to online metric analytics. In the internet age, the chief technology officer's latest wizardry too often overshadows the value of fundamental customer knowledge. And in this fast-changing environment, pressure to match the competition's online initiatives for fear of being left behind can unfortunately divert the CMO's attention from the customer. The CMO need only look at the historical relationship between media and technology to understand why marketing leadership is crucially important. It took years, even decades, for previous new-media inventors to understand how audiences could use their technologies. After inventing the phonograph, Thomas Edison believed its primary application was dictating business letters. Alexander Graham Bell viewed the telephone as a news and entertainment medium, with subscribers dialing in for access. Following the invention of wireless communication, it took almost 20 years for David Sarnoff, founder of NBC, to conceive the radio.

Help the technology to find its 'narrative voice'
For a new-media technology to engage its audience, it must find its "narrative voice." For the printing press, that was the book, which took more than 50 years to develop; for radio it was moving beyond broadcasting vaudeville acts and creating a new form of narrative drama, the soap opera. We have witnessed the internet's sequential infatuation with push technology, avatars, multiplayer games, RSS feeds, the blogosphere, social networking and various forms of video. This parade of technologies tells us the internet's growing pains are not any different than those of predecessor media.

The CMO must change the focus from technology to customer benefits. Like the internet, previous media were "world changing" technologies of their time. However, their ultimate success did not come from the technologies themselves, but was a result of the underlying psychology that made the book, recorded music, the phone call and the soap opera indispensable to consumers.

From the advertising perspective, interactive technology has an unmatched ability to place a relevant message in front of a targeted consumer. In evaluating this advertising, however, the CMO brings the perspective that exposure alone does not necessarily make the internet an effective advertising medium. A fundamental truth about all advertising, whether it appears in print, broadcast or the internet, is that it must elicit audience awareness and involvement, as well as accomplish message communication that influences attitudes and causes desired behavior.

Use Old-World psychology to guide new interactivity
Answering the question "What can the technology deliver?" will not lead to the development of communication platforms or advertising formats that are in sync with how consumers think. For example, recent studies show that animation, a favorite internet ad device, does not increase user involvement in the ad, reduces processing of the ad's content, suppresses potential recall and is associated with negative attitudes toward the advertisement.

The CMO must insist that questions about the internet be asked from the consumer's perspective, changing the emphasis from technology to psychology: "What do we know about the mental processing of media and information by consumers that tells us how we can use this new technology effectively?" With the answer to this question, the CMO can lead the internet to find its narrative voice, giving it communication capabilities equal to or greater than those of other media. This not only will increase the internet's targeted direct-response capability, but the internet will become an effective brand-advertising medium by delivering messages that are based on established psychological principles.

At the end of the day, it's not about the technology; it's all about the consumer. The CMO must take charge, using old-world psychology to guide the new world of interactive technology.

Remember What's Important

To maximize the potential of the internet, the CMO must take the lead in developing and researching applications that will resonate with the customer. Steps that the CMO can take include:

1. Put communication front and center.
Establish communication as the priority by challenging the company's marketing resources and interactive agencies to think from the larger perspective of the internet's "narrative voice."

2. See ad formats from a consumer's perspective.
Evaluate existing internet advertising formats and capabilities from the perspective of consumer psychology. How well are they aligned with human information processing? How can they be improved?

3. Make messaging the end goal.
Lead the development and testing of new advertising forms and structures that are built on the foundations of customer understanding and the harnessing of the technology to communicate messages most effectively.

4. Develop a more emotionally rich experience.
Establish long-term goals for internet technology that will transform the medium from its current data-centric character to become a richer medium in communicating values such as emotion, an active ingredient in the most effective ads.
Peter Noel Murray runs a New York-based consumer psychology and market research consulting practice. He has designed and conducted research studies for Pfizer, Toshiba, Vespa, AIG and other marketers.
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