It’s no stretch to say that “data-driven” has been the defining mantra for marketers in the 2010s. 

Some marketers have embraced data as a panacea for every challenge they face, while others have hoped the notion of “data” as a cure-all would go away if they just ignored it.

The messy reality is somewhere in-between. 

So how should data-driven marketing pragmatically evolve over the next decade?

The way I (and not a few others) see it, leveraging data to deliver better customer experiences has become one of the CMO’s most important responsibilities. But to actually succeed in that goal, we also need a driving philosophy to guide, motivate and organize our approach, allowing us to thrive in a future supersaturated with data-driven experiences.

It’ll take an adaptive mindset, innate curiosity and openness to challenging our own assumptions. It’s about experimentalism, in other words. And there’s already a model marketers can learn from: growth hacking.

Hacking Better Marketing

Growth hacking grew up among tech startups that needed a lean and fast approach to marketing that emphasized growth: growth in the number of users, sure, but just as importantly, growth of customer engagement with an app or service, such as number of visits, time spent using the site and so on. That means growth emphasizes not just customer acquisition, but discovering how customers use a service, then making it work better to encourage those customer behaviors. 

When done right, it equates to working smarter, staying agile and being willing to question whatever assumptions we brought to the table. Our customers don’t care about our sacred cows or intentions — they care about the effort and experience of using a service.

Marketers of all stripes are beginning to elevate customer experience as a core functional goal for our profession. And that’s a big reason why growth hacking has moved from the startup culture into the broader stream of our profession. The most effective among us are able to couple the “agnostic agility” of growth hacking — a willingness to pivot to any approach that holds promise — with marketers’ essential empathy for our customers. 

That combination of data-driven empiricism and marketers’ traditional skill sets will be crucial to how we move forward. 

The New Rules of the Data-Driven Marketing Game

A focus on customer engagement, backed by a culture of flexibility and responsiveness, are the new rules of the game. I’ve been part of enterprises, like Twitter, where that hacker mentality of experimentalism is the soul of company culture. 

Here are a few lessons marketers can learn from it:

1. It’s empiricism with empathy

Growth hacking is scientific — more mad scientist than Mad Men — relying on close observation of the audience as campaigns, value propositions, messaging, et al, are tested. 

But it’s not solely about data. Otherwise, it would drown in template-driven solutions. It's also about listening and communicating — about developing empathy for your prospects. It’s actually a variant of design thinking, with empathy as the foundation of a process of exploration and refinement with the audience. Marketers need to graft this deeper approach into their DNA.

2. It’s about collaboration with customers, not conquest

If you’re of a certain age, you might recall George Carlin’s famous routine about the jargon of football versus baseball. Traditional marketing also tosses around a lot of military lingo about making conquests, or taking the high ground as we take aim at our targets. 

Growth hacking focuses on connecting with an audience by being flexible and even collaborative in shaping how an app or service develops. Steps like unlocking content or functionality to nurture deeper engagement are seen as a net positive, not a loss. It helps you be a better listener, communicator, teacher and helper, building real relationships and loyalty.

Learning Opportunities

3. A 'perfect' strategy is the enemy of the good

We need to divest ourselves of the calcified notion a “strategy” has to be set in stone before we take action.  

Growth hacking is inherently antithetical to that. Rather than insistently perfecting a program before you let it run free, it’s about shoving an idea into the wild, watching what happens, then applying the polish — or trashing the idea and moving quickly to the next one. 

Yet growth hacking doesn’t rely on intuition: it's about analyzing quantitative and qualitative data to iterate its process. By testing ideas — good and bad alike — you learn an incredible amount. Would you have learned it while locked into a pre-ordained strategy?

4. Content matters more than channel

With luck, we’ll never see another marketing brief that seeks to shape a message to fit the mandates of a 30-second TV commercial. Your compelling message, really useful freebie or fantastic value proposition has to be channel-agnostic, because reaching consumers now involves a rainbow of touchpoints. 

In an omnichannel world, marketers must engage seamlessly across every platform and channel that makes sense, and be agile enough to react when contexts and audience attention shift in an instant. Growth hacking helps build those organizational reflexes.

5. Experiment out in the open

By surrendering iron fisted control of the brand-consumer relationship, marketers are building more powerful engagements. In an age of digital ubiquity, customers expect transparency and an opportunity to provide input on the direction a product develops. 

Growth hackers have understood how creating community and partnership with an audience is paramount, and it’s why forward-looking brands like IKEA build a store on Instagram, and GoPro and Red Bull exalt user-generated content. It deepens the rapport with customers, earning amazing insight and loyalty in return.

We’re Just Beginning

In the end, growth marketing comes down to one goal: using the data of our experiments to shape great customer experiences. And the amount of data we can leverage is only just beginning to be understood. 

If you think “data” has reached its high-water mark, I’m pretty sure you’ll be taken aback at the magnitude of the rise in its sea level over the next decade. 

As marketers, we can’t panic and flee to higher ground — there isn’t any. Rather, by combining the best of our traditional marketing talents with the lessons of growth hacking, both our audiences and we will ride that tide to … well, let’s run an experiment and see what we discover.

Editor's Note: Josh will be taking a deep dive into what it means to be a data-driven organization at CMSWire's DX Summit in Chicago, taking place Nov. 14 to 16 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel. Find out more about his session here.

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