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Spending time as analysts do -- closely watching the vision that digital marketing vendors extoll to their customers -- it is difficult at times not to be caught up in the art of the possible. Watching demonstrations of customer interactions that cross desktop and mobile, SMS and email, and digital campaigns that effortlessly meet goals with barely a moment of manual intervention, can make for compelling viewing.

Not only do these demonstrations present a full implementation of an extensive technology set, but also presuppose that organizations have the maturity to support the vast underpinning of design, content and process required to realize such a vision.  The demonstration of a technological vision is what customers buy into when they establish a relationship with a vendor. Big annual conferences are designed to allow vendors to demonstrate the extent of the vision, often by revealing R&D as much as a genuine shippable product.

Looking Under the Hood

If we are to look at the guts of a contemporary technology stack designed to deliver a unified view of a customer, much of it will be highly familiar: repositories of customer data (which may or may not involve a CRM system) at its heart, repositories of content (potentially WCM and/or DAM systems), repositories of product and inventory (ERP) and a whole cartful of business logic -- such as marketing automation -- designed to knit the whole lot together. Given that market competition generates a race towards adding ever more functionality over time, progress of the technology can often be defined by the level of integration of the current pieces.

Turning these technology stacks into something that solves a customer perception problem through a single view of a customer is not a simple one. It is not simple to turn all that potential capability into something that works in an integrated manner.

There are a number of piece parts to the technology that supports "real time" marketing efforts today -- most of which are not especially new. What is changing is the way in which businesses apply this technology towards customer-facing scenarios, not just in marketing but towards a goal that unites marketing, sales and customer service functions in recognition of a single customer profile. This doesn't represent how most organizations currently see customers, but rather how customers believe organizations see them.

Dynamic Pricing for Shoes: Simple, Right? 

Take a simple real time example: dynamic pricing. For a customer browsing an e-commerce site for a pair of shoes -- a subject close to my heart -- being offered an on the spot discount is a decent way of getting them to move an item into a cart or take a cart to checkout. As HTML5 Web Sockets become standard across the browser estate, a technological solution exists that gives the ability to target individual user sessions with such a dynamic, real time offer.

Consider what might be required to create that offer -- not the process of delivering it to the customer in context to their current interaction -- but beyond that. The design of that offer is likely to require knowledge of stock inventory and target sale price for that inventory in specific territories. The targeting could be a result of prior history, either anonymous or explicit, perhaps on a website generated by a campaign email, paid display advertisement or social promoted content. Supposing that it came from a targeted email -- it could be as a response to loyalty or as compensation for a previous customer service issue. The offer has to recognize all of this complex context and not, for example, promote the same product that may have been the original cause of that compensatory voucher.

In the eyes of a customer, juggling that set of competencies is straightforward. You know me. You know what I’ve bought before and the reason for my visit. Why would you promote an item that isn’t in stock or that you know I have had prior disappointment with? That the management of this simple example cuts across a large swathe of a retail organization is of little consequence to the customer at this point. They’re just cross.

Customer frustration with brands is often exacerbated by the silo mentality which still pervades most organizations; the repetition of information that a customer has already provided ("you already have my phone number"), a lack of information sharing across functions resulting in poor case handling ("I’ve already explained this to your colleague") and incomplete transaction histories ("thanks for the product recommendation, I've already bought that from you").

The challenge for organizations to approach a degree of dynamism toward customer interactions promised by real time marketing demonstrations is much greater than the technological one (which in itself is far from simple). It requires a fundamental rethink in how they manage the totality of customer interactions, organize and process the resulting information generated and present this in a unified manner. Being able to perform this in real time is the cherry on the top. Turning that disparate set of ingredients into a cake to support it is the real challenge and one that will be with us for a long time to come.

Digital marketing is a hot topic in the tech sector right now with billions of dollars being spent by technology suppliers to acquire and build out smarter marketing mousetraps. The necessity of understanding customer needs and responding in real time will only become more critical and more complex as channels and choices multiply.

Be realistic about the true cost of doing this -- recognize that technology alone will not resolve your marketing problems. Highly skilled marketers will -- marketers who understand customer and market dynamics and are able to best use the technology on offer. Second or third tier digital marketing technology in the hands of first rate marketers will win out every time over first rate technology in less skilled hands.

Title image by Bacho (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Matt in Dispelling the Chief Marketing Officer Myth