This article originally appeared on HBR.org.
Time is running out on personalized marketing as a means of continually raising the return on investment of campaigns. The use of advanced data analytics to identify the right customers, while still valuable, is reaching a plateau. Proliferation of digital channels and options for customers raises the importance of another, still underappreciated, variable: message timing.
By communicating at the most opportune times based on insights into consumer behavior, companies can generate more business with fewer or more efficient ads, or expand their audience to find unexpected wins.
Timing comes into play through signals, sequence and speed. And the technology now exists for marketers to test with high confidence when to communicate and in what order—and to do so in near real time. How exactly are they doing that, and thereby realizing further gains in ROI? Bain & Company recently surveyed nearly 1,700 marketers globally, in partnership with Google, and found three areas of importance.
Signals. By understanding consumer intent, marketers can identify the right moments in the customer journey where ads will be most relevant.
In the market for cold medicines, for example, a leading global brand mapped its customers’ past search and purchase behavior, determining that people who take their cold medication in the first two days of symptoms are more likely to get relief and become greater brand advocates. Knowing this, the company worked with Google and WebMD to reach consumers whose search terms suggested they had common cold symptoms in that narrow period. As a result, the brand substantially increased conversion of searches to sales of its cold medication, building greater brand loyalty at the same time.
Sequence. Once a company spots the crucial signals, it should deliver a sequence of messages tailored to each customer.
A global sporting goods manufacturer used to mix brand-oriented, aspirational messages and price-focused promotional messages during the same time frame, in part because its e-commerce and brand teams did not coordinate with each other. Yet leading with a promotional message, while it might generate a short-term sales boost, sacrifices building long-term brand value. By contrast, leading with brand messages early in a campaign can have a halo effect on the subsequent promotional messages.
This company now runs campaigns jointly between the two teams, sending and testing messages in a carefully calibrated sequence. As the senior director of digital media told us, “We can sequence our ads to start with a brand message for our most inspirational product, then start promoting a different product with an offer attached if the customer doesn’t bite. This saves money [on promotions] and ensures our positioning remains premium with those for whom our brand really resonates.”
Speed. Timing also affects how quickly a company is able to react to a customer’s behavior. Faster reaction times go a long way toward more effective marketing.
When companies get more proficient in timing their marketing activities, they often realize another benefit: freed-up time for brand building, creative development and data mining. The digital director of the Dutch cosmetics retailer Rituals noted that improving its customer prospecting gives the firm more time to “develop creative and ad messaging that is most true to our brand.”
What Marketing Leaders Do Differently
Advanced marketers have already begun to master signals, sequence and speed. For these firms, our research identified improved understanding and selection of customers as being their single-greatest investment area over the next three years. But while all marketers share this goal, the leaders (defined as the top 20 percent of companies based on a composite score of revenue and market share growth), have a sharper focus.
Leaders own their digital destiny by taking control of their consumer data and by integrating their marketing and advertising technologies. For example, leaders in North America are 1.6 times more likely than laggards to prioritize integrating their platforms. European marketers rely more on outside agencies, but a majority still value integration, and 85 percent of Australian marketers are looking to integrate.
The leaders have built a test-for-results culture, refreshing metrics and dashboards at least weekly and using data to directly inform decisions. Leaders also make decisions faster, in part by having the in-house team responsible for customer acquisition and retention take more accountability for budgets, technology and analytics. There are regional differences, of course—slower data refreshes in Europe, more budget constraints in Australia—but the trends for leaders apply globally.
Companies that take more control of their marketing and advertising data and technology will be able to respond quickly to customer insights and send a tailored message at precisely the right moment. That raises the odds of seizing attention for the immediate purchase and building brand equity in the longer run.
Laura Beaudin is a partner and Francine Gierak is a principal with Bain & Company’s Customer Strategy & Marketing practice. Beaudin leads Bain’s Marketing Excellence practice.