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Marketing and IT: Two Solitudes

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The meeting was only a few minutes old when it erupted into a shouting match. At one end of the table, the IT staff in charge of selecting an analytical tool for the Marketing group; at the other, the end-user sponsors of the project.

At issue was whether the needs of Marketing were being compromised in the interests of expediency.

Mutual animosity had been building up ever since Marketing had first won approval for a multimillion-dollar customer database six months earlier. During that period, the IT department had furtively transformed the project into the start of an enterprise data warehouse, effectively hijacking the budget.

When it dawned on the Marketing group what had happened, it felt swindled. Even more galling, IT was now insisting on acceptance of an analytical tool, already in use, simply because spare seat licenses existed—despite the fact it was clearly inferior (in the opinion of Marketing) to alternative products on the market.

No wonder the exchange was so acrimonious. All trust and credibility had been lost between the two groups. But the rancor they felt was not unusual: it pretty much characterizes the everyday state of relations between Marketing and IT. In fact, according to a recent Forrester Research survey, more than half of marketing executives who responded "see IT as having little understanding of how technology can support marketing."


One explanation for the bad blood is that Marketing and IT are culturally distinct: two solitudes divided by opposing agendas. The disposition of IT is shaped by its prime directive to rule over the deployment of all technology; therefore, cost containment and risk reduction are natural concerns on every project. The job of Marketing, by contrast, is to generate business growth; any obstructions to that goal, no matter how warranted, are fiercely resisted.

Each group speaks a different idiom, and neither side is willing to gain familiarity with the other. Marketing gets annoyed at what it views as obfuscation, usually in the form of slippery excuses for project delays, while IT invariably complains of wooly job specifications. Both perspectives are valid: Marketing has an aversion to technology (unless it makes it job easier) and is often guilty of equivocation, while IT habitually retreats behind an impenetrable wall of jargon.

At a time when Marketing is in desperate need of a sharply-toned IT infrastructure, mainly to cope with a rising swell of consumer data, these petty squabbles are a major barrier to improving the customer experience. Marketing and IT must stop nursing old grudges and form a united front to pursue those high-impact changes that will create value for customers. Without a common vision for the role of technology in customer management, and agreement on a path to get there, progress will continue to be thwarted by needless bickering.

Convulsive Change

In a provocative Harvard Business Review article last year ("IT Doesn't Matter," May 2003), the argument was advanced that technology has become a commodity—that "existing capabilities are largely sufficient" to satisfy the needs of companies.

That may be true in most operational areas of a company, but it is absolutely not the case in Marketing. Ever since the advent of the punch-card era, the needs of Marketing have been largely passed over in favor of automating routine business processes (payroll, order entry, and so on).

But the awakening of interest in CRM beginning in the late 1990s, combined with the mainstream arrival of digital media, has given Marketing an opportunity to catch up. The trouble is that Marketing has always had a chronic inability to articulate a consistent and stable set of requirements—something IT insists on due to its tightly wound methodologies.

Even though application development cycles are far more compressed and flexible than in the past, making it easier to accommodate last-minute changes, most IT shops still prefer to work from a fixed blueprint.

Just as perplexing for IT is the volatility of the marketing automation sector, which has undergone several evolutionary phases in quick succession and operates with perpetually shifting boundaries. Technology vendors doggedly stake out new and often overlapping functional advantages for the sake of competitive one-upmanship. With vendors prone to inflated claims, and few able to show verifiable examples of crossover integration, marketers have a tough time sorting out the essential parts of an integrated system. Should they opt for an all-purpose application suite—or assemble a myriad point solutions into a unified architecture?

What makes CRM planning such a high-wire act is that marketing itself is undergoing convulsive change. Instead of serving exclusively as the custodian of branding and communications, marketers are being asked to take ownership of the customer experience. So their needs today stretch far beyond the database-driven direct mail programs of the past: they encompass the intelligent day-to-day handling of real-time customer interactions.

Constant Tweaking

Today, every marketing process must be wrapped around the goal of identifying and adjusting to the ever-changing needs of customers. Essential to managing the customer lifecycle is the mastery of such emerging disciplines as customer analytics, segment planning, feedback management, scenario design, content versioning and performance tracking—all reliant on tightly synchronized information handoffs.

In the future, marketing success will be defined by the inventive use of all addressable media to continuously interact with customers while responding nimbly to unexpected actions and events. As Forrester Research notes: "Three technology trends—media fragmentation, addressability, and interactivity—are converging on the world of marketing and advertising. In a new era of Left Brain Marketing, analytical strategies grounded in deep audience knowledge will rise to predominance."

This transition from push to pull marketing, where the terms of engagement are shaped almost entirely by the customer, presents a forbidding set of technology hurdles, chief among them the following:

  • Integration of disparate data sources—The incisiveness of "audience knowledge" is dependent on a multihued picture of the customer, where raw data is grouped into major dimensions (e.g., purchase behavior, channel interactions and customer attributes) by varying levels of summarization. This consolidated pool of customer-level information—distinct from a centralized operational store that can support many diverse views using the same facts—is engineered explicitly for customer segmentation and profiling.

  • Multi-channel deployment of treatment rules—A rules repository of "if… then… else" statements, derived through customer analysis and data mining, must be loaded into a decision engine in order to present situational offers in real-time, serve up customized content, deliver personalized messaging, automatically route service inquiries for priority treatment, and trigger alerts based on predefined conditions.

  • Harnessing of customer feedback—The Internet's evolution from a content management and display medium to a conversational channel is unleashing a torrential stream of unstructured data that must be parsed and converted into actionable information. The job of creating a suitable taxonomy and charting this vast sea of semantic data is only possible if feedback interfaces and applications are designed to simplify the task.

To make the leap from analog thinking and drawn-out planning cycles to an "always-on" networked environment, marketers have to get over the notion that application management is strictly a backroom function. A key responsibility going forward will be the constant tweaking of treatment rules governing different scenarios, such as complaint arbitration in the contact center or the communication of unique offers and entitlements to different customer segments. To ensure timely refinement of these rules, Marketing has to be technically savvy enough to itself make the desired changes.

To liberate marketers from the tyranny of the job queue, IT must upgrade its architecture to make it more modular by embracing open standard technologies (e.g., Java, .NET). A modular architecture decouples the rules and workflow from the application itself, alleviating the maintenance burden. That frees IT to concentrate on systems and data integration across the enterprise.

Finally, Marketing and IT must patch over their differences and jointly work on mapping customer management goals to technology solutions. They should team up with operational departments to identify sore spots for customers; resolve overlapping internal jurisdictions; map out horizontal workflows; decide on the tools they really need; and re-define their respective roles.

Through the cross-functional exchange of ideas, the high-impact fixes can be more easily identified and agreed on. These deliberations should be complemented by incubation sessions during which more radical ideas for improvement and innovation can be hatched. By putting aside their historical grievances, Marketing and IT can take a leadership role in accelerating the transition to a customer orientation. A more collaborative partnership will mean they'll no longer have any need to shout at each other.


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Stephen Shaw is vice-president of strategic services with The Kenna Group, a full-service customer relationship management company. He can be reached at 905-361-4046 or via email: sshaw@thekennagroup.com.

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  • by Janet Park Tue Mar 18, 2008 via web

    I'm reading this almost 4 years after its initial publication. The topic is timeless and often ignored. IT is critically important to marketing, but the communication between the two groups is always strained.

    Great job Stephen, for highlighting the vital issues. You "get" it. Many thanks.

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