2014-27-June-Push.jpgAlthough there are many chronological views of the history of marketing, there are really only three core conceptual views of marketing that have been dominant in our lifetimes: Push, Pull and Collaborative.

In the beginning, there was push marketing. Historically, almost all of us have been taught a push method of marketing. We provided a value proposition, pitch or sample in one of a limited set of channels for consumption.

Marketing was mainly differentiated by the creative quality or educational value of the marketing approach, but it was notoriously difficult to calculate the value of marketing efforts. In effect, it was a Mad Men shotgun approach: shoot a bunch of pellets vaguely in the direction of a target and hope that your creative efforts hit a target.

The Emergence of Pull Marketing

The expectation of finding the value of marketing began to change as we were able to quantify the nature of our online experiences and interactions. Marketing created new categories such as content marketing focused on providing a "pull" based approach to attract customers rather than a "push" based message.

As each click, website visit and order now became an electronic transaction, we quickly moved to a new paradigm of data driven marketing where A/B testing, predictive analytics and Big Data became part of the Chief Marketing Officer's vernacular. It's safe to say at this point that the CMO must have a strong understanding of conversion rates and the metrics associated with the marketing funnel to do her job optimally.

Although "pull" marketing became more popular, metrics were used to define and create a trap to pull in customers based on optimized user interface, attractive content and clickbait titles. In effect, the combination of "pull" marketing and data driven marketing were the equivalent of placing snares throughout the most relevant areas. In the early stages of the internet, this search engine optimized world was the basis of bringing in new clients and Google reigned supreme.

The Big Caveat for Data Driven Marketing

In this rush to become data driven marketers, we overlooked a key point. Data is used to prove the efficacy of campaigns and to measure the various approaches of push messaging, pull-based content and educational marketing efforts. However, data is not the end-all and be-all of a marketing campaign. Data simply reflects the results of specific actions at a specific time. By focusing only on the data, marketers can fall prey to the classic problem of managing towards the ends rather than the means. (It’s no coincidence that hunting metaphors work well for both classic push and pull marketing.)

It may be that the successful data associated with a marketing campaign may be contextual and irreproducible rather than an indicator of best practices. If campaign tests and experiments are based solely on terminal data results such as conversions, marketers may end up optimizing a suboptimal or damaging process based on poor context. It could be that the best results were a result of luck. Or the best results were due to a temporary effect that quickly leads to client fatigue. And without a root cause analysis, a data driven analysis can lead to a long term approach that could ultimately prove harmful to the company's marketing approach.

The Answer: Collaborative Marketing

We don't want to go back to the Stone Age of push marketing. But at the same time, data driven analysis has its limits as well. The solution is collaborative marketing. This is the real opportunity for digital marketing in this social, mobile, contextualized, search-enabled world that we live in.

Collaborative marketing has been defined in a number of ways over the past couple of years. Some have defined it as an internally collaborative process where marketing organizations find alignment with partners and complementary organizations. These are table stakes. A marketing organization that doesn't have any partners will always be at a disadvantage against competitors who know how to work with others.

Collaboration in marketing is more important when you are working with your potential customers to design a marketing approach. This is where the true power of social media comes into play. Companies that treat social media solely as a broadcast channel do themselves a disservice because they are still living in the Stone Age of push marketing. In reality, social users are often providing their key business challenges, their interests, their concerns and their willingness to move forward with projects. All that is left for the marketer is the willingness to listen and engage.

This collaborative approach is neither a true push-based or pull-based model. Companies no longer need to force a message down their clients' throats or lure them into an opportunity. And customers are no longer separated from marketers. In a social world, customers and marketers have mutually agreed to share the same space. Based on mutual availability and willingness, consultative conversations can often held in forums that are shared, private and fairly neutral. Even branded or private communities often have the majority of their content and discussions written by third parties who are outside corporate control, such as customers, potential clients and interested passersby.

This marketing approach requires companies to fundamentally shift their outbound and inbound tactics. Companies often use content marketing in an experimental way today and try to equate specific content with conversions. A collaborative approach takes a more specific view of the client based on size, vertical, role, timing and their corporate needs to be helpful, regardless of whether the client's needs are currently aligned with the vendor's offerings or not.

Of course, some of you have figured out that the collaborative marketing approach is simply treating the client as a unique individual or company. This is what we did before "marketing" was a mature practice. The one caveat I would make is that we now have the ability to keep track of many conversations at once through the use of marketing automation and customer relationship tools and to provide each client with the help that is requested.

This is the goal of digital marketing: not to simply guide clients to the next prescribed piece of content or to push them towards the next stage of qualification, but to actually listen and provide good suggestions. In truth, the next stage of marketing is basically scaling out the process of the consultative sell where we must simultaneously provide human intelligence and empathy while leveraging technology to help track and prioritize the multiple conversations that we are having.

Moving from Data Driven to Collaborative

So, what are the key changes that companies must make to support collaborative marketing in their organizations?

1. Start conversations, not lectures

Content marketing used to start with broad, market-based documents and filtered down to individual case studies. The opposite is true now. Start with the success story and give the potential client the opportunity to ask questions. Customers will eventually do all of their research on the market, but why not start by having them read your story first? Even if your case study may not be the most "effective" standalone conversion asset from a pure quantitative perspective, it will most likely be one of the best ways for clients to understand how your company works with its customers.

2. Remember that data is descriptive, not prescriptive

Data simply shows what is happening. People don't buy new products because the data shows the numbers. It's the opposite -- the data got created because people bought new products. The fundamental goal is to understand why people bought new products. Instead of focusing purely on the data associated with current marketing tactics, consider whether there are new trends that may lead to new marketing strategies.

To give a social example, if your numbers show that women are better customers than men and that you have a higher number of women converting on Facebook than on Twitter, the quantitative response may be to spend more money on Facebook. But the qualitative response may be to shift marketing budget to a social network with more women, such as Pinterest.

3. Correlation does not equal causation

This is a similar point, but speaks towards the analysis of data. It is easy to simply look at correlations between actions and results and to build a model based on those results. It can also be tempting to continue adding variables to build a better correlation. This can result in what statisticians call "overfitting," when a statistical model starts to measure random background noise more than the actual statistical relationship.

Rather than focus strictly on building the most complicated model with the best "fit," look at the variables and actions in your campaign that are most related to actual conversions or sales. Go back to your customers and make sure you understand why they buy your product. When customers tell you the actual reason that they bought or used a product, that reason is verified causation. And that is how collaborative marketing should work: customer and marketer working together to define the insights and parameters of success.

4. Don't get carried away with Return on Investment

In a data driven world, the ROI of a campaign is often the main focus of success. Because Return on Investment is a ratio, it can be easy to massage the numbers by reducing the cost of a campaign or projecting assumed future revenues. Focus on your customers: acquisition, churn and repeat business are the name of the game in a collaborative marketing environment.

If your marketing approach needs numbers, focus on the total return rather than ROI. Would you rather have a 50 percent ROI that resulted in $2 million in new business or a 1000 percent ROI that resulted in $10 in new business? Focus on the numbers that your company is goaled on. If your ROI does not have a material effect on your company's financial metrics, your data driven marketing may be penny wise, pound foolish at the cost of avoiding larger gains from lower ROI projects. Keep your eye on the strategic prize where both the company and the client can be victorious

5. Remember that your campaigns are part of an ongoing relationship

Although campaigns help provide structure, timing and budget to a marketing department, the end goal is typically to maintain a lifelong relationship with the client. Make sure that your successes are not defined by a client's activity during the course of a single campaign, but by the client's progression from customer to loyal client to brand advocate.

Chances are that if you learn to manage this evolution, the metrics will start to take care of themselves. Because collaborative marketing is based on understanding a potential client's needs, the vendor will find opportunities to sell throughout the course of an ongoing client relationship regardless of whether a campaign is in place or not.

Data driven marketing and collaborative marketing are not an either/or proposition. We can and should measure what we do. But remember, data is not the end-all and be-all of marketing even in today’s world of big data. To advance to today's Golden Age of Collaborative Marketing, collaboration and human insight need to guide data analysis. This hybrid approach, where the customer and the vendor work together to determine the messaging, goals and results, is the key to marketing success.

Title image by BluIz60 / Shutterstock.com