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Guest Comment: Your customer has spoken, but can you hear what they’re saying?

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Today’s tech-savvy customers can interact with a retailer through a whole array of channels, from a website, to a call centre, to a social network website. And while this expansion of on- and offline media has amplified the consumer’s voice, it has also splintered it.

Given that valuable customer insights now reside in the 80% of the world’s unstructured data, etailers worldwide face the challenge of deciphering who their customers really are and what drives their conversion decisions. The emerging inadequacy of legacy marketing strategies to do just that has become a sore point that is starting to throb in the competitive, credit-crunch retail sector.

Marketing experts are straining to hear the customer’s voice — the voice of consumers frustrated by impersonal and irrelevant online experiences. Departing from these antiquated marketing approaches and adopting a proactive Meaning Based Marketing (MBM) strategy holds the key to optimising processes, creating a meaningful and rewarding experience for prospects and clients, and boosting customer engagement and conversion rates.

Traditionally, companies have based marketing strategies on guesswork about the preferences, intent and purchasing behavior of an increasingly eclectic marketplace, ultimately resorting to decisions based on the HiPPO, or the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. The problem with the Hippo is that it is inherently subjective, with decisions based on metrics that lack real insight into customers’ preferences and behavior. Like its plodding, plant-eating, mammal namesake, the widely-used Hippo has neither the agility to negotiate a range of different terrains, nor the dynamism to look to new means of sustenance.

Online businesses typically limit themselves to analysis of historical data and trends, which only nominally inform what effectively amounts to marketing guesswork. They then proceed to manually implement changes long after the initial touch point, when the revenue-making opportunity might have already diminished. But by bringing meaning to interactions, marketers are now being given the tools to accurately understand their customers’ motivations rather than simply second-guess them. And this is set to change the online marketplace for good.

Each customer interaction with your organisation across all touch points contains invaluable insight into client intent, sentiment about the brand and products, and purchasing behavior. For the first time, it is possible to extract meaning from these interactions and make sense of the human-friendly, unstructured information found in the depths of social media, online reviews, call center recordings, chat and other web-based communication vehicles. It is this unique customer-specific information that informs individual shopping habits and can enable etailers to offer their customers a highly-targeted shopping experience, thus dramatically reducing abandon rates whilst boosting cross and up-sell.

Autonomy Interwoven’s Meaning Based Marketing (MBM) ushers etailers into a new era of marketing that allows them to glean true insight from their customers’ interactions in today’s multi-channel, digital world. Unlike legacy technologies, which base recommendations on the purchasing behavior of other users with a similar history, MBM uniquely targets each individual, thus helping ensure that recommendations are an accurate reflection of a web-shopper’s specific wants and needs.

MBM derives an understanding from human-friendly information and acts on that knowledge to deliver the best performing, most accurate and relevant experience to each individual. This new approach draws on transaction history, real-time communication, cross-channel interactions, user generated content, customer and community behavior, as well as third party content. Both structured and unstructured formats like web pages, social networks, phone call recordings, as well as customer email and video are all understood — automatically.

The benefits are clear. In an industry where the competition is just one click away, it is more important than ever to make the end user’s experience as meaningful as possible, and turn site visitors into site customers. With marketers now able to extract meaning from all customer interactions and adopt a truly customer-centric approach to marketing at the individual rather than the aggregate level, their decisions can be driven by what actually sticks with their audience.

Indeed this cutting-edge technology heralds in a new, democratic system where customers are placed in the driving seat of the very marketing tools that aim to attract their attention and money. Marketing professionals can wave goodbye to antiquated approaches that blindly rely on metrics which fail to capture the full richness of interactions, or simply on pure guesswork. For example, MBM automatically identifies the most compelling combination of web content and design by exposing different combinations of online content and layout to different visitors, analysing their actions and then recommending the optimal design. MBM can also extract relevant meaning from comments made on a social networking website or a blog and proactively target a new customer segment.

So, if an airline discovers that interest is building around a pop concert in Germany, they can launch a campaign to specifically capture a market of music fans looking to fly to a nearby German city. For the first time, Meaning Based Marketing empowers etailers to rely on genuine understanding and not guesswork, selecting the most profitable combination of content and layout and enabling targeting and optimisation at an individual rather than group level. The old business adage of ‘listening to your customer’, up until now little more than a vacuous, albeit well-intentioned, sound bite, becomes a reality with MBM.

And it is from listening to all their customers, across all touch points, that organisations such as Tesco, British Airways, John Lewis, LoveFilm, BT and Virgin Mobile are reaping the rewards of rising revenues and contented customers. Indeed nine of the top 10 global brands rely on Autonomy’s MBM technology to maximise marketing and customer interactions. New, dynamic and customer-centric, it is no surprise that this new conceptual marketing movement is outrunning and outdating the Hippo. Today’s forward-thinking e-marketers are increasingly departing from guesswork and adopting a marketing approach based on meaning.

• Greg Kelton is the md for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Autonomy Optimost, a subsidiary of meaning-based computing pioneers Autonomy. Greg will be leading the free Boosting Your Online Performance in the Downturn…What’s the secret? workshop at Internet Retailing 09 in London on Tuesday 13 October.

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