Where does customer experience end and digital marketing begin? In today’s customer-centric world, the two practices are increasingly intertwined. One thing experts agree on is all digital marketing activities should be conducted through the lens of customer experience.

After all, the goal of digital marketing is to help establish long-term relationships with individual customers, which can in turn support the renewed purchase of products and services as well as open the door to potential upselling and cross-selling opportunities.

Each customer’s relationship with an organization is a sum of all their experiences starting with initial brand awareness and lasting all the way through to their post-purchase level of engagement, said Dutta Satadip, a CX thought leader who has built customer experience organizations at Pinterest and Google.

“As more products are becoming subscription-based and companies are trying to reach customers directly, focusing on branding and acquisition is limiting,” said Satadip. If organizations can optimize the post-purchase segment of the customer lifecycle, they are well positioned to derive considerable customer lifetime value.

“Traditionally, marketing and customer experience have resided in silos,” Satadip said. In the future, by working together, both groups will have the opportunity to capture the “real voice of the customer” across the entire customer lifecycle.

Strive for a 'Balanced Blend' of CX and Digital Marketing

How best to describe the optimal relationship between customer experience and digital marketing? Robert Rose, chief strategy officer at The Content Advisory, suggests the visual analogy of mixing a goal-appropriate cocktail, where the overriding challenge is to achieve a “balanced blend” of the two categories.

“Certainly, not all of the customer’s experience is digital marketing — but all marketing is definitely part of the customer’s experience,” Rose said. “So, the density of digital marketing versus pure customer’s experience is based on the amount of marketing we put into it.”

For instance, if an organization’s goal is to deliver value or solve for a job-to-be-done without regard to its brand or product features, then the focus (or the majority of the drink) is customer experience. “If our goal is to persuade, or move an audience to take a deeper action toward purchase, then it would seem we’re adding some marketing to the cocktail,” Rose said.

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'Digital Marketing Is the Execution of CX Strategy'

“There’s no such thing as customer experience OR digital marketing,” said Carla Johnson, marketing and innovation strategist, speaker and author. “The entire digital marketing strategy needs to be developed through the lens of customer experience.”

It’s vital for brands to stop thinking in terms of two separate strategies. “Digital marketing IS the execution of the customer experience strategy,” Johnson said. “If your digital marketing strategy doesn’t take into account that it delivers to the customer — the user experience of the brand — then the time and budget you invest in digital marketing will never live up to its potential.”

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'Digital Marketing Is a Subset of Customer Experience'

Nicole France, principal analyst and vice president at Constellation Research, agrees with Johnson. “Digital marketing is a subset of customer experience — always and completely,” she said. “Customer experience, as a term, describes the sum total of the individual experiences and interactions a customer has with a business. With that in mind, ANY marketing communication, whether digital or otherwise, is a part of customer experience.”

Digital channels represent an increasingly important way in which organizations communicate with prospective and existing customers. This means digital marketing has become an even more critical element of customer experience than in the past, particularly now during a global pandemic when other engagement opportunities may either be limited or inaccessible.

“Marketers in particular need to avoid putting their customers off — whether by bombarding them with communications or missing the mark on attempts at personalization,” France said. “At best, customers will ignore these communications; at worst, they’ll get annoyed enough to stop listening or doing business with you.”

Examples of personalization gone wrong can be benign, but irritating, such as referring to a customer by the wrong name, suggesting irrelevant products, or recommending something that the customer has just purchased, according to France. There’s also the danger of an organization using customer data to act upon inferences instead of waiting for an appropriate signal from the customer that they are ready to engage, as in the high-profile and emotionally charged example of retailer Target and a pregnant teenager.

Learning Opportunities

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Look Across the Entire Customer Journey for Insights

Satadip suggests organizations avoid focusing solely on marketing-only metrics and instead pivot to looking at data drawn from the entire customer lifecycle. He gives the example of a marketer opting to target new audiences who very closely resemble existing customers rather than taking a more in-depth dive into current customers’ product engagement and support issues. Conducting a wider examination “can reveal if these customers are the right fit and contribute to the bottom line,” or whether the present customer base is “draining resources because of the lack of product-market fit,” he said.

It’s vital that organizations don’t confuse the customer’s journey with their own marketing processes or siloed organizational structure, according to The Content Advisory's Rose. He notes that too many organizations default to organizing themselves by function, be it brand, demand generation, sales enablement, sales or customer service, and then limit the types of customer experiences they provide by those functions.

“Organizations go to extremes when it comes to the development of experiences,” Rose said. “For example, they only develop 'content marketing' (customer experiences) at the very beginning, or end of the customer’s journey, and, in between, they focus on digital marketing and selling. There are plenty of opportunities to balance and mix up the kinds of experiences we are creating at every part of the customer’s journey.”

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4 Suggested Best Practices to Address CX and Digital Marketing

Satadip suggests organizations and their marketers regularly undertake a specific best practice. “I think all organizations should spend a day every quarter walking through the full customer journey and systematically understanding all the pain points across the lifecycle,” he said. “This allows marketers to understand the not-so-great aspects of CX and, in return, they may be able to create messaging that sets the stage to build more authentic relationships between customers, the company and the brand.”

Johnson recommends marketers start with the broader customer experience strategy and then develop a digital marketing plan which underscores those larger CX goals. “Unless the two work hand-in-hand, marketers will always struggle to earn the credibility from the rest of the organization that their work truly deserves,” she said.

 “The real power of digital capabilities for marketers is to identify, understand, and test their understanding of what really matters and is of interest to customers, and how that varies among customer groups,” Constellation’s France said. “Done well, digital marketing is more focused on the quality of communications and interactions with customers and not the quantity of them — it’s about value, not volume, even across a large customer base.”

Rose mentions a very popular Steve Jobs video where the late Apple co-founder advised starting with the customer experience and working backwards towards the technology, not the other way around.

For the purposes of customer experience and digital marketing, Rose suggests a slight change. “I’d say if you start by focusing on building customer experiences that continuously add value to the customer’s life, you can and should work backwards from there to see where you might insert the right balance of marketing messages,” he said. “You will absolutely never go wrong by always focusing on how you can add more value to a customer’s journey.”