Paradigm Shifts

phonesFor a long time, the marketing technology world has been obsessed with “channels.” Email, web, social, mobile, advertising, and now N types more. First, “multichannel” was the must-check buzzword, then “omnichannel,” and now, it’s mostly just “commerce” writ as broadly as possible. Billions of dollars later, creating, nurturing and converting relationships with customers across these different channels remains an unsolved puzzle today for most companies. The intricacies of “omnichannel” marketing, and the new technical and business challenges they pose, are a big part of the widespread adoption of cloud-based marketing tech and ecommerce platforms we’ve seen.

Today, we live in the era of the “marketing cloud.” Adobe, which coined the term in 2009, has seen such remarkable success that its major competitors have actually chosen to ape borrow it, leading to the Oracle Marketing Cloud, Salesforce Marketing Cloud, IBM Marketing Cloud and others. (For the record: these were Marketing-101-level bad branding decisions, guys.) The bold vision of integrated, analytically-informed marketing orchestration that the all-in-one “marketing clouds” articulate is a good one, and achieved to widely varying levels by their users.

Yet looking ahead, I think the world beyond the “marketing clouds” is beginning to come into focus. It’s a paradigmatic shift, and one driven largely by the inexorable rise of mobile technology. User platforms, built and bred for mobile, will increasingly disintermediate merchants – by which I mean retailers, banks, airlines, telcos, or any other consumer-facing company – from their audiences. (Note, I didn’t say “customers.”) These platforms – most of whom are already established today, though some are still emerging – will command more and more of their users’ loyalty by offering superior experiences that merchants simply cannot match, driving the primacy of content, merchandise, and customer intelligence over all other differentiators.

The widespread adoption of mobile devices has led to a dramatic shift in how most people, and certainly younger ones, consume media and form brand relationships. Depending on who you ask, “online time” is either quickly catching up with television or has already surpassed it (for younger Americans, almost surely the latter). Mobile phones are becoming our “primary screen.” This is a drum many of us have been beating for years.

app ownersYet consider that time spent on a mobile device is not like that on a traditional PC. One of the clearest examples: no one really “surfs the web” on their phone. That’s a problem, given how much of traditional digital marketing (not to mention a lot of the spend) is built around that old user interface model of a person seated in front of a PC on the open web. On mobile, people mostly spend time in apps – primarily social media and messaging, consuming content discovered through platforms. The user’s experience is completely mediated by the app (ex. Facebook/WhatsApp) and device (iOS/Android) platforms, which influence what the user sees, does, and how they interact. On mobile, discovering new content to consume becomes much less a function of a typed search and more one of what’s socially shared, or what the platform’s mysterious algorithm comes up with.

Apps, Platforms and Discovery

Apps now function as the primary content and product discovery engines for their mobile users. Americans now spend an average of 40 minutes per day just on Facebook, for example, which leaves room for an awful lot of paid content placements. It’s not just social platforms, though. As messaging explodes in popularity, Facebook is quite open about its intention to build Facebook Messenger into a cross-platform marketplace for… just about everything, built around messaging. (A reminder: FB Messenger is the second most-popular messaging app in the world, right behind WhatsApp, which of course Facebook also owns.) Facebook sees Messenger as its way to subvert the user’s device operating system layer and seize control over the user’s experience.

Apple and Google are strongly focused on their own answers for retaining control, however, with the major advantage of owning the device operating layer (and, in Apple’s case, the hardware too). Apple’s Touch ID and Force Touch are not just examples of innovations in mobile hardware – they’re also ways Apple is building moats around its user base and more closely guiding their interaction. Apple Pay, Android Pay and the rest do the same. Google Now and Siri are attempts at creating OS-layer user interaction routes that build a better experience for the user by essentially letting Google or Apple decide what gets shown.

Benedict Evans has pointed out for some time that mobile is not a neutral platform, like the PC/open web was. And because of their non-neutrality, all of these competing user interaction platforms have big ramifications for how companies build and maintain relationships with “their” customers. After all, in a Siri search, all “local movie theaters” are listed as equal substitutes. Search for the “best” of something, and what does Google Now suggest? Whatever “assistant” service I query has an incentive to show me the most relevant, best-rated (by Google? Yelp? Other?) and/or closest results – or some mix of the above. This makes it much more difficult for traditional marketing investments in consumer brand loyalty and recognition to pay off.

Additionally, you also have an entire emerging category of product discovery apps and services. UberEATS launched this week, proving decisively (for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention) that Uber is fundamentally a logistics platform, and not a taxi business:

One day, the logic goes, Uber will move anything anywhere. This app offers a window into what that future could look like. And it suggests Uber will follow a portfolio strategy for its apps–building standalone software for different services much like Facebook has done by breaking out Messenger from its main Facebook app. (link)

Product Hunt is another example. The explosively popular website/app is essentially product discovery-as-a-service, allowing users to upvote interesting new products they like. Unlike Pinterest, which often functions as something similar, Product Hunt’s voting mechanism and constant refreshes ensure a steady flow of new content, and is closely aligned with purchasing (“GET IT” appears front and center on a product’s page). This is not to dismiss Pinterest at all, however – among social platforms, it, too is one of the most powerful drivers of consumer interest today, as any retailer can attest.

Personally, I get emails from Flaviar, advertising subscriptions for boxes for selected whiskeys by delivery. And I essentially do not go shopping in stores unless forced.

From Channels to Services

I went to buy my “big” Christmas present for my wife the other day. Obviously, the first place I turned was Amazon – I’m a Prime customer, after all, and wasn’t sure exactly what model I was looking for. I read reviews, looked at different brands, did some research, and ultimately wound up buying something completely different than I’d planned. It’s now sitting beneath our tree.

At no point did I interact with the brand or manufacturer at all. There was no cart abandonment campaign. The manufacturer doesn’t know my name, let alone my email. I am a complete unknown to their marketing department. This was an expensive item, in a high-margin business, and yet their marketing ROI on me was mostly irrelevant, because there was simply no way to reach me. Amazon – the platform – became our mediator, and as such, I am an Amazon customer – not the manufacturer’s.

My sense is that most companies, and certainly the majority outside of retail, are a long way from grasping the significance of this disintermediation. They still think of “web” and “email” and “mobile” channels each competing with each other on measures like response rate and ROI, which is a bit like debating the paint color of your house during an earthquake. In a world where social platforms, discovery apps and mobile OSes are your primary customer portals, compelling content marketing, community management and “living brands” will become the dominant frameworks for building customer relationships.

Brick-and-mortar stores are great. Email is still a valuable channel. Yet foot traffic to the former has been declining for years, and will only continue to do so. Retailers with positive YoY comparable-store sales are a rare breed today, and almost all the growth we see is online. Email, the lowest common denominator of online communications, will remain a valuable marketing channel, but is hard to de-commoditize as a differentiator today.

What does this all mean for the “marketing clouds?” Honestly, I’m not completely sure yet. I wouldn’t start a digital analytics company today, though. Marketing tech and ecommerce will continue to converge. My sense is that as mobile-borne platforms win more of consumers’ eyeballs and time, content and customer intelligence will be the new differentiators – as well as compelling, innovative merchandise. The old paradigms of database marketing and email will increasingly be relegated to service channels as “customer journeys” are forever elongated into unrecognizable, unwieldy messes. For many, customer acquisition will come increasingly from a user interaction platform like Amazon, Facebook, Uber, Google or Apple – which means, as in my example, the “customer” is never really yours at all.

Relax. It won’t be the end of marketing. It’ll just be the start of something new.


So, what do you think ?