Jonathan Sinton emphasises the need to use customer data intelligently in devising brand marketing strategies

Emotional intelligence (EI) can be summed up as the ability to recognise and respond to how others are feeling at a particular moment in time. Without it, relationships tend to break down. And that’s the risk currently facing relationships between brands and their audiences on digital platforms.

People complain that brands ‘stalk’ them online and make them feel uncomfortable. Marketers either fail to realise how intrusive their use of online advertising has become, or they choose not to care. Many believe that by targeting ads based on what they know about people’s behaviour, they’re being more relevant and helpful. Unfortunately, their audiences don’t seem to agree.

Most targeted online advertising is intelligent – in the sense that it’s informed by online behaviour, but not emotionally intelligent. For that to change, marketers need to begin asking harder questions of the data they’re using, and for what they are using it.

FIRST DATE Until now, marketers have collected behavioural data with one goal in mind: who is showing an interest in my category and how can I persuade them to buy from me? The result is that even customers with very different relationships with the brand are treated the same way and served the same direct response advertising.

Shoppers being ‘stalked’ by ads for a TV have the same experience, whether they are looking for a TV, bought that exact television two weeks ago or considered that TV but bought another one instead. People who have searched for broadband providers are bombarded with offers of high-speed connections long after they’ve signed up with an internet provider.

It is one thing to continue to encounter a brand in different places, but another if that brand persists in saying the same thing every time you encounter it – regardless of what your previous experience with it might have been.

As brands use digital targeting solely for customer acquisition, it is similar to being unable to have a meaningful relationship with someone who merely wants to keep reliving your first date.

As a result, the more connected people are and the more touchpoints through which they encounter a brand, the more this frustration builds.

FLASHPOINTS These occur when marketers set about using a particular digital channel for one purpose, only to find a whole host of different people who want to use it for something else.

A business launches a clever brand campaign on Facebook, only to find itself fending off very public complaints about defective products or customer service. It can’t afford to simply dismiss the perpetrators as ‘trolls’ or ‘saboteurs.’ Its targeting has been guilty of treating people with whom it already has a relationship as if it’s met them for the first time.

The solution is not to give in to audiences’ apparent desire for less use of data in targeting them. Instead, we must integrate different forms of data into that targeting so that it can reflect the journey that a business and its target audience have taken together.

QUALITY INFO In the recent past, a large portion of the blame for marketers’ one-dimensional use of behavioural targeting has rested with the nature of the data with which they have been dealing.

Data Management Platforms (DMPs) have provided information on the actions that a laptop or mobile phone has taken. They have been far less useful at identifying which phones and laptops go together, and the people using each phone and laptop. But using the type and quality of data as an excuse is already beginning to wear thin.

DMPs are increasingly able to amalgamate data from different devices by using a process known as device mapping, to build a comprehensive picture of which devices belong to which people.

When they compile a complete profile of someone’s digital behaviour along with which phone and laptop they own, they’re typically right at least nine times out of 10. The raw material essentially exists for marketers to begin recognising the people they meet on digital platforms – recognising who they are, what their experience of the brand is, and what products and services are relevant for them. But translating this into EI, which people demand from brands, requires several acts of commitment.

DATA GAINS It begins with the internal memory of a business – i.e. tackling the silos that are in the way of a coherent picture of each person’s relationship with it. It’s not uncommon for a major company to have hundreds of different IT systems, each containing relevant but essentially disconnected information about its customers.

Connecting those internal systems so that they can talk to each other in meaningful ways is an intimidating task, but it’s an essential first step if businesses are to begin using data on people’s online behaviour more intelligently.

It’s noticeable that businesses that have been born in the era of Big Data (Dollar Shave Club being one obvious example) are far more effective at delivering intuitive experiences online. The lack of legacy silos means that they launch with all of the relevant information about their customers being readily accessible across the business.

Different categories have different challenges when achieving EI through data. Financial services brands are fairly advanced in detecting each customer’s situation and what’s an appropriate thing to say to them at a given moment. Their problem lies in finding the right way to use that information without overstepping the mark and shattering an already fragile trust.

On the other hand, brands of fast-moving commercial goods (FMCG) have greater inherent permission to deliver EI experiences, but far less joined-up data on which to base those experiences.

CREATIVITY This is where a creative approach to generating relevant data is vital. It could involve interactive campaigns and rewards programmes that offer people a reason to identify themselves. It could involve launching new content services and platforms to which they might want to subscribe.

Businesses need their own view of their customers and potential customers if they are to safeguard their relationships with them, while creative strategies focussed on building that view will become increasingly central to marketing.

The benefits of this owned data aren’t limited to relationships with the people to whom the data actually refers. Through look-alike modelling, brands are increasingly capable of identifying others with similar situations – even with similar past experiences of the brand. EI can be extended even to those with whom their prior contact has only been fleeting.

It can also be integrated across offline environments as well as digital ones. The credit card company that knows its customers should be able to use data to know when somebody is planning a trip abroad and suggest tailored services to smooth their experience. When that person calls to enquire further, it should also recognise the number, know who is calling and why.

When people fly abroad, the company should know to automatically clear their credit cards for use in the country to which they’re travelling. These are the kind of tangible demonstrations of value that people claim they need from brands. And they can only come from a commitment to self-knowledge and EI through data.

The writer is the Head of Global Market Development at Kantar TNS