7 Things I Learned About Marketing This Year

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These days, it’s like I blink and six months are gone. That’s certainly how it felt for me this year—2015 was a whirlwind. Every year around this time, I like to sit down and reflect on the last 12 months, not only to remember that they actually happened, but to think about what I’ve learned as a marketer, and—more specifically — as a CMO.

You’re probably thinking, what’s the meta takeaway? What’s the one thing that I should carry with me as I round out my marketing plans for the year ahead?

You, my fellow marketer, will discover that the following findings boil down to one common theme: We are truly in a new era of marketing—the era of engagement marketing.

This year, a number of key changes came into focus for all of us—contextual changes and imperatives for us to fundamentally reimagine how we connect with our potential and current customers and how we set up our organizations for success.

For our organizations to connect with today’s always-on digital consumers and thrive in 2016 and beyond, we marketers need to evolve, innovate, lead and be change agents in our organizations. We need to create a “Marketing First” world, if you will.

This is an incredibly exciting time. This year, I said over and over that marketing has changed more in the last five years than it has in the last 500 and will change more in the next five than it has in the last five. What lies in front of us is the opportunity to shape this change and be a pioneer for all the marketers, sales teams, customers, partners and CEOs to come.

So here they are—in no particular order (because after this whirlwind year, I only have four brain cells left)—the seven key things I learned this year:

1. It’s About Engagement Marketing, Not Mass Marketing

This has been a central theme for me in years past, but I really saw it come to life in 2015; smart brands that were not targeting consumers with the same messages over and over again were the most successful.

Some of the organizations that I saw executing this best were sports teams. Franchises have succeeded in creating an ongoing dialogue with their fans to engage beyond game attendance.

By observing that a football fan has taken his whole family to the big rivalry game every year for the last six years, teams are able to market more effectively both around that game and around other family activities. They have begun talking to that individual—not some generic, large group of “fans.”

In terms that may sound too “inside baseball” (pun intended), this shift is captured in a move from a “third-party” world (pushing generic messages to someone else’s audience) to a “first party” world where the marketer and the organization are the keepers of individual behavioral and demographic information.

This allows them to make every interaction—even paid advertising—completely relevant and personal. Just think of the potential!

2. It’s About The Whole Customer Life Cycle, Not Just Acquisition

Over and over this year, I saw—and felt personally in my own day-to-day role—a shift toward the marketing organization being responsible for, and a driver of, the entire customer life cycle, not just the top of the funnel.

I met with customers whose “acquisition” marketing teams weren’t even in the same building as their “loyalty and retention” marketing teams. And then I watched them dismantle those constructs to bring them all together. 

Yes, we want to think of innovative and engaging ways to obtain new customers, but we must place equal, if not greater, importance on keeping the customers we have happy. More engaged customers spend more with us, they renew at much higher rates, and they advocate for us to bring in new customers in a way that our “clever marketing” could never do. 

Investing in that this year is just good business.

3. It’s About B2H, Not Just B2B or B2C

The old distinctions of marketing are disappearing. I repeatedly heard “consumer” marketers this year say things like, “I need to figure out how to nurture relationships like those B2B marketers do.” And, just as often, I heard “B2B marketers” say, “I need to figure out how to dynamically personalize all my messages and content on the website like those consumer marketers.”

It’s no longer about how we see ourselves (e.g., “We sell to consumers” or “We sell to businesses”), but about how consumers see us. Not only does this mean that marketers are “crossing the aisle” to learn from each other’s best practices, it means that they’re taking a more personalized approach to their interactions with the “humans” on the other end of their marketing messages. 

Dedicating ourselves to this broader definition of “must-haves” or best practices will drive higher conversion rates and more revenue for all of us in 2016.

4. It’s About The Customer, Not The Channels Or Silos

I heard a lot of marketers this year coming to the realization that people don’t live inside one or another imaginary channel—that they had to think about “everywhere” and “integrated” and “conversation.” For example, while there’s been great emphasis on “mobile first,” there was discussion about falling into the trap of “mobile only.”

One marketer expressed to me his “aha” moment of realizing that the mobile device “actually contained a minimum of five different channels” as he described the fact that on “mobile” you and I could be in email or a social network or on the web or watching a television channel — all in addition to possibly interacting with an actual mobile app — all in the very same device.

A focus on marketing by channel creates disconnected—and, really, really annoying—experiences for customers. We need to think of our marketing systems holistically. For 2016, it’s not just about mobile or email or social—it’s about how these all intertwine and drive a customer forward on his or her journey.

5. It’s About Renaissance Marketers, Not Channel Specialists

Building on the above, there’s a need for today’s marketers to be a master of many talents, instead of specializing in one area or channel. The topics of people, skills, and the prototype for the new marketer were perhaps the most frequent discussion I had with CMOs and marketers in 2015.

Mostly recently, Lara Hood Balazs, SVP, head of North America marketing at Visa, in a Q&A with Marketo (my employer) on Mashable described her talent search as looking for “human Swiss army knives,” i.e., “people who … can easily move between multiple work projects.” These folks are rare, which is why I predict that there will be greater emphasis on educating tomorrow’s marketer in the year ahead.

This education will go beyond traditional marketing tactics to include mastering marketing technology.

6. The Power Of “And” Vs. The Tyranny Of “Or” In Martech

Prior to this year, “martech” and “ad tech” might as well have been on different planets as far as marketers were concerned. “Programmatic” was the big buzzword with advertisers in 2014, but in 2015, the buzz was all about the convergence of advertising technology and marketing technology.

This was a particularly enlightening lesson from 2015—that the world of paid advertising can andshould directly be tied to direct marketing and the ability to connect with individuals. The result is the ability to personalize ads like never before.

For example, sending a specific, relevant message to someone via a paid ad in their Facebook feed should be no different than sending them an email. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if I could send that person a relevant email based on their behavior on my website showing interest in product X, and then if they open that email, automatically put a follow-up paid ad message in their feed—but, if they don’t open that email, I could put the original message in that paid ad?

This also means that, as a marketer, our marketing spend will be tracked in new and improved ways. Instead of throwing dollars at programmatic and customers who fit a specific profile, but may or may not be interested in our product, we’ll now be able to better target our dollars to the people who really do care and are therefore are more likely to buy.

In many ways, this is the “aha!” moment we’ve all been looking for.

7. This “Marketing First” Phenomenon Is Global

I was all over the place this year—mentally, and physically! From France to Japan to the UK to Australia to Germany and over to New Zealand, I was meeting with marketers of all backgrounds and industries.

What struck me was that no matter the location, all of today’s smart marketers are grappling with the same challenges that this new digital era presents. They were all talking about the lessons and issues that I identified here—things were not isolated to a specific geography or segment or vertical or size of company.

Despite changes and challenges, it was universal that the marketers that were diving head-first into a Marketing First mindset were the ones who were seeing the best results and making the most waves. This won’t happen for all us overnight—it takes a lot of hard work and planning—but if we invest now, and if we commit to drive just one of these lessons in 2016, the results will be worth it.

I hope these insights provide a little bit of guidance and luck as you head into 2016. Happy holidays, Happy New Year, and happy marketing!

This post originally appeared on Marketing Land on December 20, 2015. 

Sanjay

Sanjay Dholakia

Former Chief Marketing Officer, Marketo

Sanjay served as Marketo's CMO for nearly five years, leading the marketing department through its worldwide expansion and IPO. He joined Marketo from Crowd Factory, where as CEO he was responsible for the strategic direction and vision of the company. Sanjay holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA in strategy and marketing from the Kellogg School of Management.

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