The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I spent a few days last week with 10,000 digital marketers, enveloped by all things Adobe at their Adobe Summit event. They paid me to cover the event as an insider. It was my first-ever Adobe event, and I was impressed. Adobe Summit is a classy confab in every respect.
The combination of speakers was especially well handled, with a combination of Adobe personnel, partners and industry types, and celebs (including George Clooney, Abby Wambach, Donny Osmond, and Thomas Middleditch – star of the HBO show Silicon Valley). It seemed like a too-eclectic mix at first, but Adobe did a very good job keeping a consistent messaging thread throughout the 3-day event:
The business of the future is powered by customer experience.
In the opening general session, Adobe’s Brad Rencher defined the characteristics of an “experience business” as a firm that offers these four benefits to customers:
- Know and respect me
- Speak in 1 voice
- Make technology transparent
- Delight me at every turn
— Marketing Cloud (@AdobeMktgCloud) March 22, 2016
Is Customer Experience New, or Just Newly Buzzed About?
The analyst and futurist Brian Solis spoke at Adobe Summit too, also hewing to the customer experience is critical theme, and summarizing key points from his book on the topic (I reviewed Brian’s book “X” here).
Brian emphasized that customer experience is the new differentiator, but I’m not certain I agree.
Customer experience is of course a differentiator. People will willingly pay more to interact with brands that offer superior experience. Feelings as currency is real, as long as you live in circumstances where you can afford to prioritize them. Casting aside a product because another offers better emotional resonance and ease-of-use is the very best kind of #FirstWorldProblem.
So I can certainly agree that customer experience shifts customer preference (and just published my own book that touches on the theme). But hasn’t customer experience always been one of the ways we choose where to spend?
Liberal return policies. Drive thrus. Open 24-hours. Bags fly free. Dogs welcome. Free dessert for kids. These are all business components that have been around for years (decades, in some cases). We used to call them “building a better mousetrap.” Now, the world of marketing and business has collectively agreed to call them elements of “superior customer experience.”
Fair enough. But let’s not pretend that giving your customers a better, faster, easier interaction is some 2016 invention. It’s not.
The Power of Analog Customer Experience
Particularly striking, in fact, was a session with the legendary musician Donny Osmond. Osmond remains a strong draw in Las Vegas even though he’s been in the business for a full 50 years, and just released his 60th album (!!!).
Osmond talked about how he stays relevant in changing times by expanding his audience and repackaging his content. Smart man.
My favorite part, however, was when he talked about the “purple cards” segment he incorporates into his live show at The Flamingo. Before each, his team finds two dozen or so interesting audience members, and gives them a purple index card and a marker. They are invited to write down a question or request for Donny.
During the performance, Osmond reads the purple cards, answers questions, does requests, sings Happy Birthday, etc. delivering a remarkable customer experience to the card-writing fans, and due to the extreme customization and personalization of each show, creates a bespoke version of a seven times per week gig.
Donny Osmond needs no software to deliver a great customer experience. He understands that customer experience is first and foremost a human-powered endeavor. For Donny Osmond, customer experience lives in your DNA, not your marketing cloud.
The Battle Between Hearts and Minds
This is the challenge faced by modern business.
We have more software than ever to provide the scaffolding for heightened customer experience. Adobe announced some very nifty innovations at Summit, and their “smart shopping bag” technology and new “immersive retail experience” could revolutionize bricks and clicks businesses if and when it’s widely deployed.
But software alone will not create great experiences. It’s just the gas in the engine.
As always, marketing that wins customer hearts and minds is about the wizard, not the wand.
And the wizards aren’t ready to meet the challenge. The irony was thick when vendors at Adobe Summit spammed the hashtag with marginally relevant tweets DURING a keynote on the need for personalized marketing and better customer experiences. Here’s just one of many examples:
— People in North Am. (@JoinCapgemini) March 23, 2016
Why, when they have at their disposal technology that is easy(ish) and affordable(ish) do so many companies still rely on techniques and tactics that clearly do not meet the test of great customer experience?
I believe it’s because for premise of personalized customer journeys and 1:1 marketing to take root, brands must commit to experimentation. And experimentation requires an appetite for risk that most brands do not have because it’s not culturally acceptable to fail.
Said in a shorter, tweet-friendly way:
To deliver great customer experiences brands must embrace experimentation, risk, and failure.
Pam had lunch the following day with several representatives from a large insurance company, and they inadvertently ratified this thesis (which I also witness consistently in our consulting practice here at Convince & Convert). Pam asked them why they weren’t making use of more of the outstanding Adobe technology to improve their marketing, especially in personalization and customization.
Paraphrasing, the answers were:
“We want to, but we can’t get budget. The CMO just wants to constantly study new software, but nothing gets implemented. Our job is to run reports that help the CMO keep his job.”
So this is the state of modern marketing. Technology is outstripping our ability to adopt it because the pace of change on the software side is so much faster than the pace of change on the organizational and corporate culture side.
For us to be able to actually harness the power of experience-led businesses, we need to focus as much on the wizard as on the wand.
Any meaningful improvement in customer experience through marketing tech must start first in the heart, and then move to the head. If your organization doesn’t really and truly believe at the molecular level that customer experience is transformative, you’ll never embrace the risk enough to reap the reward.
Thanks again to Adobe for bringing me out to Adobe Summit. I learned a lot and restoked some fires.