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In the previous installments of this series, I discussed the importance of relevance in direct digital marketing and listed five keys to achieving a relevance-centered approach.

This article looks at the fourth key: taking an incremental approach to creating more relevant, valuable communications every day.

Passion Is Great, but Discipline Is Productive

In the first installment, I presupposed instituting an operational culture of relevance, which needs little justification: The value to consumers and marketers is self-evident.

But that does not mean full philosophical buy-in is the only key to making relevance work. A marketing organization can drink the Kool-Aid and still go nowhere.

Poor results can be attributed to the lack of both a disciplined and an incremental approach, sometimes called "boiling the ocean"—trying to achieve a large goal by attacking the end result instead of focusing on the first step, then the second step, and so on.

Boiling the ocean is a product of unharnessed passion and ambition, and probably a little naiveté. Instead, a marketing organization needs to take an incremental approach to achieving relevance, where each step forward is small but also important, attainable, and measured.

It's equally important that the outcome of each step inform future steps. That takes discipline.

A Conceptual Hierarchy for Relevance

Before jumping into the tactical iterations, a critical first step in achieving relevance through an incremental approach is identifying what relevance looks like conceptually.

I often apply a "hierarchy of relevance" in day-to-day program and communications planning. The simple test helps evaluate the merit of any strategy.

To pass the test, any communications plan should be examined through the filter of these hierarchical needs:

  • Does the communication reflect a partnership with the customer or audience?
  • Does the communication provide equal or greater benefit to the audience than to the brand? Is the value exchange balanced in favor of the audience?
  • Does the communication support the explicit or implicit needs and interests of the customer at this time, in this place?

If your direct digital communications meet that hierarchy of needs, then it is time to consider the tactical aspects.

Tactical Considerations for an Incremental Approach

In the previous installments, I discussed the necessity of identifying and resolving organizational barriers and technology limitations. The idea is to democratize the segmentation and targeting processes.

Those become very real considerations with an incremental approach. Marketing leaders must have the discipline to break down potential barriers and evaluate incremental improvements and the steps to overcome them.

  • What is possible and feasible right now, considering the present human resources, budgets, and technology?
  • What digital channels can be leveraged to support that communication?
  • Does the level of complexity in developing the communication outweigh the potential benefit to the consumer or the brand?
  • What is the state of the segmentation strategy—if one exists? How is the strategy functionally applied?
  • Is there a single view of the consumer? If so, can it be manifested consistently through each online channel?
  • When opportunities are identified and prioritized, are they effectively deployed and measured?

Segmentation and targeting are enormously important aspects of the relevance-focused approach. However, the "boil the ocean" effect can paralyze marketers.

Instead, the discipline of incremental improvement, with a focus on measurement and optimization, provides a framework for small steps. Small steps are manifested in big buckets of consumer audiences.

What are the big buckets? They can vary widely based on the business type. But before segmenting and targeting consumers across digital channels into dozens or hundreds of groups with complex attributes, start simply.

Is there incremental value to be found in delivering more-relevant messaging to the "A vs. B" segments? Take one audience and create a logical split based on one attribute. When implemented, the simple A vs. B segments can create a dramatically more-relevant experience to a consumer than a single default treatment.

Here are some examples of common A vs. B segments:

  • Customers vs. noncustomers (think about the presentation of your website or landing pages)
  • Engaged vs. dormant
  • Male vs. female
  • Urban vs. rural
  • Single vs. family
  • Researcher vs. decision-maker
  • Advocate vs. assailant
  • Tech-savvy vs. tech-averse
  • Online buyer vs. in-store buyer

Marketers must first master simple segmentation and targeting approaches. Then they must master measuring and evaluating the success of a more relevant approach, while determining how consistent the execution is across the appropriate digital channels.

Once the basics are handled, new and more-complex approaches can be attacked. Many marketers will be surprised by the valuable learning that comes out of such simple targeting approaches. No sophisticated marketing science is required to yield incredible insights.

A vs. B segments can be layered on top of each other to create four segments, then 16, and so on. Or, mastery of the A vs. B approach can spin off into nonexclusive segmentation strategies where messaging is conditional on both attributes and a prioritization of business rules.

Even still, known attributes can be blended with additional targeting opportunities, such as observed online behavior, personas, and propensity models.

Remember: The cycle of maturation and sophistication should be managed with the measured discipline of an incremental approach.

Getting Started

Regardless of where or how you start, getting the ball rolling in some direction is critical. Establishing the operational culture of relevance begins with incremental learning and fluency in the basic cycles of planning, targeting, deploying, and optimizing.

The next and final installment of the series will discuss the important role of creating a relevance road map that a marketing organization can follow to achieve relevance in direct digital marketing. Stay tuned.

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Bryce Marshall is the director of strategic services at Knotice (, a direct digital marketing solutions company. Bryce is a contributor to Knotice's blog, The Lunch Pail (, and can be reached via

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