In 1960, the US Navy coined a design principle: Keep it simple, stupid.
When it comes to advertising and marketing technology, we haven’t enjoyed a lot of “simple” over the last dozen years or so. In an increasingly data-driven world where delivering a relevant customer experience makes all the difference, we have embraced complexity over simplicity, dealing in acronyms, algorithms and now machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
When the numbers are reconciled and the demand side pays the supply side, what we have been mostly doing is pushing a lot of data into digital advertising channels and munching around the edges of performance, trying to optimize sub-1% click-through rates.
That minimal uptick in performance has come at the price of some astounding complexity: ad exchanges, third-party data, second-price auctions and even the befuddling technology known as header bidding. Smart, technical people struggle with these concepts, but we have embraced them as the secret handshake in a club that pays it dues by promising to manage that complexity away.
Marketers, however, are not stupid. They have steadily been taking ownership of their first-party data and starting to build marketing tech stacks that attempt to add transparency and efficiency to their outbound marketing, while eliminating many of the opaque ad tech taxes levied by confusing and ever-growing layers of licensed technology. Data management platforms, at the heart of this effort to take back control, have seen increased penetration among large marketers – and this trend will not stop.
This is a great thing, but we should remember that we are in the third inning of a game that will certainly go into extra innings. I remember what it was like to save a document in WordPerfect, send an email using Lotus Notes and program my VCR. Before point-and-click interfaces, such tasks were needlessly complex. Ever try to program the hotel’s alarm clock just in case your iPhone battery runs out? In a world of delightful user experience and clean, simple graphical interfaces, such a task becomes complex to the point of failure.
Why Have We Designed Such Complexity Into Marketing Technology?
We are, in effect, giving users who want big buttons and levers the equivalent graphical user interface of an Airbus A380: tons of granular and specific controls that may take a minute to learn, but a lifetime to master.
How can we change this? The good news is that change has already arrived, in the form of machine learning and artificial intelligence. When you go on Amazon or Netflix, do you have to program any of your preferences before getting really amazing product and movie recommendations? Of course not. Such algorithmic work happens on the back end where historical purchases and search data are mapped against each other, yielding seemingly magical recommendations.
Yet, when airline marketers go into their ad tech platform, we somehow expect them to inform the system of myriad attributes which comprise someone with “vacation travel intent” and find those potential customers across multiple channels. Companies like Expedia tell us just what to pay for a hotel room with minimal input, but we expect marketers to have internal data science teams to build propensity models so that user scores can be matched to a real-time bidding strategy.
One of the biggest trends we will see over the next several years is what could be thought of as the democratization of data science. As data-driven marketing becomes the norm, the winners and losers will be sorted out by their ability to build robust first-party data assets and leverage data science to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
This capability will go hand-in-hand with an ability to map all kinds of distinct signals – mobile phones, tablets, browsers, connected devices and beacons – to an actual person. This is important for marketers because browsers and devices never buy anything, but customers do. Leading-edge companies will depend on data science to learn more about increasingly hard-to-find customers, understand their habits, gain unique insights about what prompts them to buy and leverage those insights to find them in the very moment they are going to buy.
In today’s world, that starts with data management and ends with finding people on connected devices. The problem is that executing is quite difficult to automate and scale. Systems still require experts that understand data strategy, specific use cases and the value of an organization’s siloed data when stitched together. Plus, you need great internal resources and a smart agency capable of execution once that strategy is actually in place.
However, the basic data problems we face today are not actually that complicated. Thomas Bayes worked them out more than 300 years ago with a series of probabilistic equations we still depend on today. The real trick involves packaging that Bayesian magic in such a way that the everyday marketer can go into a system containing “Hawaiian vacation travel intenders” for a winter travel campaign and push a button that says, “Find me more of these – now!”
Today’s problem is that we depend on either a small amount of “power users” – or the companies themselves – to put all of this amazing technology to work, rather than simply serving up the answers and offering a big red button to push.
A Simpler Future For Marketers?
Instead of building high-propensity segments and waiting for users to target them, tomorrow’s platforms will offer preselected lists of segments to target. Instead of having an agency’s media guru perform a marketing-mix model to determine channel mix, mar tech stacks will simply automatically allocate expenditures across channels based on the people data available. Instead of setting complex bid parameters by segment, artificial intelligence layers will automatically control pricing based on bid density, frequency of exposure and propensity to buy – while automatically suppressing users who have converted from receiving that damn shoe ad again.
This is all happening today, and it is happening right on time. In a world with only tens of thousands of data scientists and enough jobs for millions of them, history will be written by the companies clever enough to hide the math on the server side and give users the elegance of a simple interface where higher-level business decisions will be made.
We are entering into a unique epoch in our industry, one in which the math still rules, but the ability of designers to make it accessible to the English majors who run media will rule supreme.
It’s a great time to be a data-driven marketer! Happy New Year.
Follow Chris O’Hara (@chrisohara) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.