I work in a charming town called Palo Alto on a very busy street that starts right at the entrance of Stanford University. This little downtown area is arguably the center of Silicon Valley or, at the very least, where everyone in a 15 mile radius goes out for a nice dinner.

Every day I walk down University Avenue and go past the same Verizon shop where I bought my phone. And every day I get a push notification, prompting me to “start my shopping experience.” 

Being a sucker for push notifications I check it, and here’s the problem: Verizon has gone through great lengths to get permission to use my geolocation and send me push notifications, yet they offer me the same thing — a portable battery charger. 

Every Single Day

I work in technology; I go to technology events; I have more portable battery chargers than I have socks.

On the other hand, I walked into their store the month before, inquired about the new phone upgrade but eventually gave up on the purchase because it seemed too expensive. 

This is data — my personal data — that Verizon should have easily captured with the nice looking mobile CRM app on the representative’s tablets. But they clearly didn’t. 

As a marketer, I can’t help but think: if I were Verizon, how would I sell to myself? And on a much larger scale: what can we learn from someone like Verizon who certainly has the capacity and the infrastructure to do real time marketing, and how can we apply the same rules in our own domains today and in the years to come?

Three Takeaways to Ponder

1. Providing digital services in exchange for access is often the most difficult challenge in real time marketing.

One thing that often isn’t discussed is that there is a type of digital currency when it comes to marketing. The type of data and access I give as a customer is correlated to the type of service I get.

What Verizon has to do is much more complex. It also has a Verizon Store app, which subtly asks for your permissions (location, push notifications, etc.) and it needs to maintain this app on every single platform. 

In addition, it has to make sure it’s not just a promotional app but also adds value by providing real time services, such as checking in to avoid lines at the store. If I didn’t see this value proposition, I wouldn’t allow access to my data or pay attention to those shiny push notifications.

You can find these examples everywhere. 

Does Google want my location? Probably. But they provide ingenious services like “Google Now” that tell me where I parked my car and when to leave home for pick-up basketball meet-ups that I forgot about in the first place. 

I think this is a fair trade. We should think about the type of ask we are making of our clients and make sure we provide a service that is a fair trade. Providing new offerings via methods like real-time marketing is a core task in digital transformation, and they are necessary to improve the customer experience.

2. Any and all data is necessary in personalization.

The fun part of being the customer in my little Verizon thought experiment is that I know exactly what I would buy and for how much. 

I had to pay $120 if I wanted to upgrade my phone. Getting this down to, say, $99 would have been sufficient to encourage me to do so. 

I also always need new chargers. And a bigger data plan. But anything else, I wouldn’t buy. 

Verizon knows all that. It’s hiding in a database somewhere. But if I wasn’t a crazy marketing geek and I kept seeing the same message in an intrusive push notification every time, I would delete the app or disable push notifications and their opportunity to have guessed my purchase intent with a broadcast message would be gone.

As marketers, we should always think about contextualization and the type of data it can utilize, be it persona, CRM or any other kind of data. 

In this case Verizon is using a good data point — location — and it’s a great conversation opener. But if you don’t build on top of the initial conversation by utilizing data, you won’t get optimal results. 

We should always aim to have each experience utilize the right type of data point, but that means having access to all data points within personalization and being able to add personalized layers onto the experience.

3. Contextualization rules are much more complex than we think.

Deciding what to offer me may require rules that are just as complex as the tax code. 

If I have a phone of certain type, have had it for a certain amount of time, pay a certain bill, and demonstrate to the CRM that I have interest in new phones, it may show me an upgrade offer. But what if one of these conditions isn’t true? 

And what if there are other parameters that impact my decision, such as the fact that I work in technology or that I am a fitness fanatic or that I browsed their Samsung section on the website? There are millions, even billions, of different combinations of conditions that impact rules.

Marketers have struggled to manually define these types of personalization rules for ages. 

It’s complex simply because there are too many permutations and it’s complicated enough to manage a personalized experience for a handful of people. I would bet this is the reason why I couldn’t detect any personalization in the Verizon app and probably the reason why I can’t really detect any personalization on 99.99 percent of the websites I visit. 

Managing personalized content and rules is so complex that oftentimes, companies such as Netflix, Amazon or Google use algorithms to make that decision. But if you have ever bought an embarrassing one-off product on Amazon and were followed around by this recommendation for months, you know that algorithmic personalization can be tricky, especially if you don’t have the resources of Amazon.

I believe that in the foreseeable future we will find the truth in the middle: the right contextual experiences will rely on all data that is available, but they will also use a mix of individually created rules that set “common sense” boundaries and are enhanced by the magical algorithms. 

The rules could definitely become very complex, and marketers might benefit from implementing a rules management system to maintain them and determine things like when someone qualifies for an upsell, how much time should you wait to share an offer, and what price range the upsell should fall into. 

But these decisions would and should always be framed by rules that are informed by data and common sense, which would ensure customers are targeted with personalization appropriately and at an acceptable rate.

The Science of Marketing

The brilliant folks that work at Verizon provide inspiration to all of us, and with more and more examples like them, we push the boundaries of marketing further. 

This is the best way to continue learning, getting ideas and hopefully improving the technology, but most importantly the science behind it. Marketing has shifted dramatically and to me, this is a good thing. 

It’s become a fascinating science: an optimization problem that is not impossible to solve. For that reason I encourage all of us as a community to share our contextualization stories and learnings and keep pushing the boundaries of personalization.

Title image by Adam Przewoski.