Two decades ago, the average internet user encountered 30 advertising messages each day online, clicking through just 7% of the time. By 2010, that ad figure had multiplied 25 times over to 735 and average click-through rate was a seventieth of what it had been. With the proliferation of smart phones and tablets in the last five years, these statistics have worsened exponentially. The marketer’s dream of 24/7 access has turned into a nightmare for both them and consumers alike. Clearly, the age-old dilemma for brands has been exacerbated in the digital era: how can we possibly cut through the noise?

While it’s tempting to choose quantity over quality, digital bombardment is both bad for brands and for the consumers they wish to serve. Best case scenario: ad messages receive low engagement and low click-through rates. Worse case scenario: more and more people jump on the ad blocking bandwagon, coughing up $5 a head to eliminate advertising messages entirely. Worst case scenario: a barrage of messages drives negative customer sentiment towards the brand, with material implications for sales and valuation. To bring this to life, almost a third of consumers say they would stop using a product or service as a consequence of overly frequent communication from the brand, according to research from OC&C.

People now expect - and even demand - more personalised relationships with brands. But too often the unwritten bond of a mutual relationship with a consumer is overlooked. Over the past two decades, digital marketing has moved from a conversation with many, to a conversation with a few, to a one-to-one interaction. Brands which understand this and act on it will thrive. Those that do not, will flounder.

The good news is that cutting through the noise is a challenge everyone is grappling with – meaning that if your brand can do it well (or even marginally better than rivals), you’ll have a huge competitive advantage.

So, what can brands do to cut through and drive those stronger customer relationships through digital?

1. Apply machine learning to drive phrasing of messages

Consumers are more likely to respond to messages when they are tailored to personal interests, are specific to their location, are contextually relevant to what they are doing, are specific to the time they are sent and have attention grabbing phrasing. Marginal changes to wording can drive massive differences in engagement.

In order to automate these incremental improvements, organisations need to exploit machine learning. Constant Contact, MailChimp and eBayEnterprise are thriving by helping businesses do this through email. Brands need to apply this type of A/B testing - comparing two versions of a communication or a webpage to see which performs better - to every message their customers receive or experience they have online or in store. Doing this may make the difference between driving potential customers mad or driving them to your webpage.

2. Use digital to customise a product or service

Customisation is being used as a product differentiator across the retail sector. The price premium associated with personalised benefits, increased word-of-mouth, enhanced brand love and customer loyalty are just some of the reasons it has worked so well.

Nike blazed a trail in the noughties with its online trainer customisation service, NikeiD, and continues this work with its Nike+ platform which allows users to learn about themselves via personalised training and tracking systems. Personalisation is an easier path for fashion brands to pursue, but organisations across all sectors are increasingly thinking about how it applies to their unique context.

YouBar, for example, lets consumers customise the exact ingredients of their nutritional bars online, while McDonald’s MyBurger campaign is another example of this trend in action. The food retailer invited members of the public to design their own burger through a ‘Burger Builder’ application on the McDonald’s website. Five winning burgers were then introduced as limited editions in McDonald’s restaurants.

The trend of personalisation is fertile ground for brands looking to drive deeper relationships with consumers. The trick lies not in relinquishing control over every element of the product or service on offer – instead, brands need to relinquish enough so that potential customers feel they’ve made an impression.

3. Theatre

By creating gaming-like experiences to add fun and excitement, brands can increase engagement and create advocates among the public at large.

Heineken used gamification to actively engage fans during Champions League matches to increase awareness of the brand. The Star Player Game asked predictive questions - for example, will the penalty be saved; will my team score within 20 seconds - awarding points for correct answers. The ‘My Starbucks Reward’ programme, on the other hand, shows how gamification tactics can be employed without requiring huge investment. Players register for My Reward through an application and each time they purchase a Starbucks product, they accumulate points. More frequent visitors to Starbucks are granted access to new ‘levels’ and each level comes with its own loyalty rewards.

Gamification tactics such as these are inherently addictive and prove highly successful in driving engagement and loyalty among certain segments of customers.

4. Enmesh physical product experiences with digital advocacy platforms

Increasingly, one of the best ways to drive promotion of a product is to let real life users try the product and then evangelise about it online. Organisations are recognising the value of creating new brand ambassadors in this way, and are increasing social media spend as a result. Innovative models like Dunnhumby’s BzzAgent, an online platform where users (or BzzAgents) compete to try products first for free, allows brands to get new products into the hands of target consumers in order to understand both attitudes to and the potential reach of the products in question.

5. Connect with customers at different stages of their relationship with the brand

Customers need and expect to be treated differently at different moments on their journey with a brand. As a result, it is critical to understand who your potential customer is and how they are likely to evolve over this journey so that your brand can create an experience that will delight rather than frustrate. This means thinking about the frequency, type of intervention and level of interaction expected. This requires a fundamental re-wiring of the intelligence and customer-level data that drive marketing initiatives, but it’s something that customers and your brand’s bottom line will thank you for.

As we move towards an era of one-to-one programmatic marketing, creating personalised experiences for customers is critical. While tempting to opt for quantity over quality, digital bombardment sours even the sweetest of brand-customer relationships.

Personalised experiences deliver stronger and better relationships with customers and can bring tangible benefits to a business. It’s more critical than ever to understand what cuts through with your brand’s audience and how to build these lucrative one-to-one relationships. Marketers wanting to steal a march on the competition should think about how the tactics above can be applied to their business, and up their game in how they interact with customers both old and new.


By Fergus Jarvis, Partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants. 

GDPR Summit Series is a global series of GDPR events which will help marketers to prepare to meet the requirements of the GDPR ahead of May 2018 and beyond. Further information and conference details are available at

comments powered by Disqus