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3 blockers of outside-in marketing

In the last three years, I have spoken with hundreds of digital marketers about their challenges. These conversations usually follow a conference talk or internal course I’ve delivered, in which I promote the ideas in our book Outside-In Marketing: Using Big Data to Guide Your Content Marketing.

The vast majority of the digital marketers I have spoken with in these conversations agree with what needs to be done in their organizations to become more data-driven. But they just can’t do what needs doing. Why? Institutional or cultural blockers at their jobs prevent them from doing it. Here I want to cover the three most common blockers, and give some ammunition to digital marketers to help them clear those blockers.

1. Money

Marketers don’t just come out and blame budgets for their problems. But they are the root cause. By budgets I don’t mean the lack of funding. I mean common finance rules that dictate how and when they have to spend their budgets. Sometimes marketers have too much funding and struggle to spend it all. Here is a common way they express the problem:

“I’d love to do more organic content clean-up, but I’m too busy spending my paid media budget.”

It might sound ridiculous, but in the land of finance, it’s actually worse to spend less than your budget in a given month or quarter than to go over budget. Why? Because finance will assume you don’t really need the money if you don’t spend it all, and you end up with less than you need the next month or quarter. Some marketers are so freaked out about this, they will direct the agency to go all in at the end of a month or quarter just to spend their money.

But prudent marketers know they have to be diligent about how they spend their money, and, if you must use it or lose it, using it can be a hard problem to solve. At IBM, we created a tool to help marketers manage their budgets in the hopes that this process doesn’t consume the time they need to actually create, curate, and optimize their content experiences.

In the absence of a tool, I would just advise marketers to get off the budget merry-go-round. Put all your paid media funds in programmatic spending, at least temporarily, and focus your efforts on creating excellent customer experiences for your target audiences. At base, budget problems are manifestations of misplaced priorities. It makes no sense to buy eyeballs and send them to irrelevant experiences. But once you have good customer experiences, you can begin judiciously spend your media budgets by driving eyeballs to your great customer experiences.

2. Power

Another common issue is ownership. People tell me all the time that they can’t use the data to make decisions because some executive insists on approving everything they publish. More often than not, data-driven decisions are rejected by executives who don’t trust the data. So the marketers don’t even bother to use data. Why use data if it only creates more conflict with executives? The way the marketers I talk to put it:

“I’d love to transform our practices in the way you present, but I don’t own the approval process.”

Outside-in marketing requires an agile approach that gives marketers and their teams the power to make changes and drive performance improvements. In some cases, the decisions are to test several options that look equally likely to produce results, and to choose the one that actually produces results. None of that happens if executives are constantly looking over their shoulders.

In outside-in marketing, executives only care about results. They don’t worry about colors or fonts or layouts or wording. They have the humility to let the customer tell them what works through their clicks. And agile marketing teams are just digital client reps, who produce results for their executives by being responsive to the needs of clients and prospects.

3. Talent

Another common question I get is about how marketers’ jobs change when they cede decision making to data. They have spent years building skills that are becoming less and less important in outside-in marketing. They love using their design eyes to spot flaws. They pride themselves on spinning clever turns of phrase and short, punchy copy. To put it in one marketer‘s words:

“I’d love to transform my practices in the ways you suggest, but I don’t want to become a robot.”

The problem is, when they have used data, it suggested counter-intuitive decisions to the ones that are second nature to them. Users just want designs to work. The rules of design that marketers have spent years practicing don’t necessarily apply. For example, users will tolerate a button in the middle of the frame rather than offset by thirds—as the rule of thirds dictates—as long as it is easy to find.

The web is a literal medium. Puns and other turns of phrase only confuse users and especially the bots that serve them. When marketers try to use these “wordsmith superpowers” in digital, they don’t get the results they hope to get. More than anything, this is what they mean by becoming a robot. It feels boring and mechanical for them to use plain language.

It’s even worse for the executives who insist on reviewing everything. In their eyes, they’re the most talented marketers in their organizations. They see themselves as the keepers of the keys to their brands. Anything that seems off-brand to them is unacceptable, no matter how good the results might be. The idea of leaving those decisions to data, let alone AI, strikes at the core of their identities.

What I tell marketers who approach me with this issue is, you still need creativity to use data-driven practices. The data doesn’t interpret itself. It takes a lot of skill to build compelling marketing experiences guided by data. This can be a differentiator for you: using data to get results in a way that is also aesthetically compelling. Lots of people can do data analysis. Lots of people can write good copy or design experiences. Few people can do both. Those people are the real stars of organizations. They are rapidly becoming the most valuable people on their teams. They are the ones who get recruited to train AI systems. They are the ones who will advance as marketing becomes ever more digital.

By all means, keep coming to me with your blockers. But hopefully the above helps with the three most prevalent blockers I hear.

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James Mathewson

James Mathewson is IBM's Distinguished Technical Marketer for search. He has 20 years of experience in web editorial, content strategy, and SEO for large and small companies. A frequent speaker, lecturer and blogger, James has published more than 1600 articles and two books on how web technology and user experience change the nature of effective content. James has two advanced degrees on related subjects from the University of Minnesota.

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