Marketing

Back to the future: How AI can empower personalisation at scale

(c)iStock.com/Jirsak

Have you ever run into someone at a party who you’ve met a few times before, but you just can’t remember their name? Maybe you call her “Betty,” but it turns out her name is “Wilma”.  Ouch. This kind of thing happens to most of us at some point, and it’s always embarrassing. If you cannot even get the name, you will never move on to a meaningful, trusted relationship with that person.

The same concept applies to your customers. Engaging them on a personal level is the best way to show them you care about them, that you want to build a long-term relationship with them.  Sounds easy, right?   But getting to know the interests, passions, and attitudes of millions of customers is a complex problem.  Fortunately, there has never been a better time for building robust Customer 360° profiles at digital speed and massive scale.  Sophisticated graph algorithms and artificial intelligence are available for customer centric brands and builders that truly care about delivering great experiences to their customers.

The key to unlock these insights already sits in your CRM or customer data warehouse today.  What is this magic we speak of?  A simple plain text email is all it takes.  The days of email being nothing more than a virtual inbox to deliver more and more low cost SPAM may not be going away, but there is clearly more value to be derived from a simple little email.  Value that can help make those emails key inputs into building a dynamic AI empowered customer learning engine.

Before we get too far down the path let’s take a quick step back.  Over the last two decades companies have invested millions of dollars in a variety of CRM initiatives to build out the elusive Single View of the Customer (SVoC).  This worked perfectly in a world where everyone had a postal address and a home phone. Join credit card data that is linked to a physical address and brands could access valuable demographic data while consolidating shopping and spend data to do everything from building out segments to tailoring messages to a more precise audience.  The good ole days.  No need to worry about the various forms of digital identity like social network IDs.  No need to consider the multiple devices carried by each of your customers.

Life was good. Then along comes the Internet, followed by social networks, the iPhone and broadband mobile networks.  That further empowered even more devices.  Now that curated SVoC seems a bit outdated.  What is a customer centric builder to do with the proliferation of identity that has occurred over the last five years alone?  That takes us back to the modernised capabilities of advanced graph algorithms and AI to play in the modern world of sales and marketing and avoid the impersonal carpet bombing that consumers so frequently tune out completely.

How do we bring the old and the new together?  Let’s view this thru the lens of our old friend Wilma and a fictional customer journey with one of her favourite shoe brands.  One day she is an anonymous shopper on FaveShoes.com and she really likes what she sees in their new releases.  So much so that she decides to sign up for their email marketing program.  Wilma doesn’t realise that her email was verified in less than a second and that the email has been deemed legit.  As she clicks around the website she notices that there are three main sections on the web page…one for hiking, one for sandals, and another for nice casual wear.  Wilma may be new to the site but she feels right at home.

This is no accident or blind luck.  FaveShoes.com is powered by connections to a web of APIs that marry a graph algorithm identity resolution engine that is linked to a social affinity engine and an email verification ping.  This is the way customer centricity needs to work in the 21st century.  Personalisation starts on day one…not after a few visits over several months.

To be sure, we must continue to deliver great value to our best customers.  Loyalty and rewards programs are not going anywhere anytime soon. But hotel points or airline miles are table stakes now. What are the little things you can do to stand out from the herd? What if you could make your customers feel like you know them by delivering personalised customer experiences like the one Wilma received.  An experience that gets better as the relationship builds over time.  This example is as salient for B2B brands where the target is professional buyers.  They are unique humans just like Wilma.

In a world that is seemingly over-run with data – messages, communications, advertisements – how does this work get done?  Breaking through the noise requires knowledge and insight. Identity resolution is the precursor to all of it.  Data is deconstructed, analysed, and placed in a probabilistic graph where the strength of those relationships and the quality of those characteristics are determined through real-world observations. As new data enters the system they are assessed in real-time using a layer of intelligence that gets smarter and more accurate as the graph increases in size.

The beauty of the technology lies in how far reaching the impact on the customer experience can go without ever crossing the line into creepy (always a real concern).  How about a well placed email asking Wilma to tell her friends about the new sandals she purchased.  FaveShoes understands that she has a large social following and is a micro-influencer with over 2500 followers across Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.  This kind of insight goes well beyond the retailer in this example.  Hotel chains might surprise and delight customers that are not top-tier loyalty members based on factors like influence.  Ditto for airlines.  Entertainment and media companies can get a jump start for new shows or movie releases.  And maybe, just maybe, we all benefit from a few less crappy ads that have nothing to do with products or causes that might work for Betty (whoever she is) but not Wilma.  And this same principle applies if you are a B2B account-based marketing pro in need of better insights to cut through the clutter of your prospects’ inbox.

This is the beauty and power of comprehensive digital identity when linked to CRM or your existing Customer Data Warehouse.  The maths is simple…1+1=3 (or more).  Innovative brands and builders will lead the charge at creating next generation customer experiences.

We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that some people might not appreciate, let alone embrace, that level of personalized data-driven marketing. That’s an important point. We should do everything we can to respect people’s privacy, while also increasing transparency about what will happen to the data that feeds into their digital identities. That means giving customers more control of their data and then offering them more value in return for sharing it.

Privacy statements are notoriously complex. Almost no one reads them. So it’s important to clearly explain how a company plans to use customer data, and to provide an obvious, simple mechanism to opt in or out.

We also need to respect customers who share their data by showing them how it benefits them directly. Most people don’t object to a grocery store using data to send coupons on the food they buy most frequently. When Amazon suggests buying socks with the shoes someone bought, they can see the value.

Taking the time to understand your customers, and offering them personalised content and services with obvious value, will help you build a happy, loyal customer base who will often advocate on behalf of your brand. Using data to reward your best customers or prospects shows you care enough about them to listen to them. Unlike that guy at the party who keeps forgetting who Wilma is.

About the authors: Scott Brave (left) is currently CTO at FullContact. He was also the founder of m.sound creations and a founder and CTO at Baynote, Inc. Prior to Baynote, he was a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Communication at Stanford University where he served as lab manager for the CHIMe (Communication between Humans and Interactive Media) Lab. Scott received his Ph.D. in Human-Computer Interaction, and B.S. in Computer Systems Engineering from Stanford University, and his M.S. from the MIT Media Lab. Scott is an inventor of numerous patents and co-author of over 30 refereed publications in the areas of human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence. Rick Porter (right) is Head of Services & Solutions at FullContact Inc.  Previously, FullContact acquired nGame, of which Rick was a co-founder.  At nGame, Rick was responsible for product management and strategy. He has a rich and diverse background focused on building and delivering solutions to enterprise customers. Prior to nGame, Rick held senior Product Management roles at SAP where he owned a portfolio of Analytic Applications. In this role he was responsible for the full product lifecycle from ideation to global launch and field enablement. 

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