Online marketing's future in a web-based world

We're ready for contextual marketing - the next phase of marketing techniques that requires more detailed information to track customers over a lifetime rather than a single session, says John Squire of Coremetrics.
Written by John Squire Coremetrics, Contributor
Commentary - Customers and prospects have taken control of the Internet, dramatically changing the way they find information, search for companies, and make purchasing decisions. Consequently, marketers have less control over and visibility into, how people locate and interact with their brand and business.

It’s difficult to stay on top of ever-changing behavioral patterns, in addition to understanding and mastering the increasing number of online channels such as blogs, RSS feeds, in-game ads and more. At the same time, marketers are still trying to capitalize on the more traditional online mediums such as email and paid search.

Regardless of changing circumstances, the goal remains the same - delivering the right message to customers and prospects at the right time, via the right channel.

So how have marketers responded to the digital revolution? Where will the next breakthroughs be seen?

The industry moved beyond mass marketing tactics quickly when it realized that a little bit of technology went a long way. The discovery of session-based data to get a snapshot of visitor behavior was gold, allowing organizations to send targeted promos for a specific product to particular groups of people: welcome to behavioral marketing.

Behavioral marketing has recently penetrated mainstream companies and marketing departments. Because of increased scrutiny of marketing spend and lead-generation contribution, each time a new technology arrives on the scene, the demands increases for rapid ROI and proof that marketing tactics are effective. Behavioral marketing tools, with the ability to syndicate customer activity data to multiple ad networks simultaneously, eliminates the need to place additional ad network tags on unproven websites.

The future
Contextual marketing, which is the next phase of advanced marketing techniques, requires far more detailed information than session-based data, such as Customer A abandoned buying a shirt. It creates and maintains a detailed profile of the activities of each customer while on your site, noting not only their actions but also the context of those actions in terms of lifetime behaviors.

The context of behavior is what makes the difference in your ability to engage and maintain customers and prospects. It takes into account visitor attributes such as age, gender, or location. For example, Customer A is female, 25-35, is using onsite search with ‘bathing suit’ as a keyword, has looked at sarongs in the past, and is currently in the ‘sale’ section of the site. Such detailed information allows you to then create highly individualized and personalized marketing programs. And it’s only through contextual marketing that you acknowledge that visitors to your site typically have multiple interactions with you and your company over a long period of time.

Here’s another example of the value of contextual marketing: Prospect B found your site by searching for a specific keyword. They view the information about your new software package and then leave. Later that month you decide to send a targeted email campaign to all visitors that looked at the new software package and your behavioral marketing data tells you that Prospect B is in this category. However, if you were taking a contextual marketing approach, you’d know that Prospect B had already returned to your site, purchased your new software package and requested online support. Behavioral marketing does not allow visibility across multiple sessions, so you wouldn’t know that you sent Prospect B the wrong message.

The ability to capture data about all visitors and over their entire lifetime, as well as understand other attributes, addresses these problems. Contextual marketing involves tailoring messages to the specific interests or needs of an individual or group of visitors as evidenced by their onsite behavior and attributes.

When scratching the surface won’t do
By drilling down deeper into visitor behavior and broadening your view of online activity to encompass everyone and every movement, you can achieve multiple perspectives of your data. You can clearly see which links are bringing customers to your site, the campaigns that are driving conversion, the products and categories customers prefer, the onsite search terms used to navigate your site or the revenue visitors generate for you in any given session or over their entire lifetime.

Contextual marketing will also allow businesses to look at the interrelationships of various channels and campaigns to determine the best time to serve a particular ad or landing page. This is where businesses can fine-tune marketing tactics for maximum success - quickly and comprehensively.

Credit where credit’s due
Multiple interfaces come into play in the conversion of a site visitor to a customer. Traditionally, marketers attribute value only to a single influence (the first or last touch) but to truly understand the impact of each campaign you need to attribute conversion across a range of channels and at various times in the customer lifecycle.

With both behavioral marketing now, and contextual marketing in the future, you can accurately measure how these marketing channels and programs contribute to attracting new customers, drive conversions and encourage deep, meaningful sessions. As a result, you can give appropriate credit to all marketing avenues that influence a sale, a registration, a booking or other conversion to get a true picture of the value of each campaign. To offer another example; Prospect Z received an email from you with a link to your website. They followed the prompt, clicked through to your site, looked around for a few minutes and then left. Two weeks later, the same person finds your site again but this time through a keyword search. They spend some time reading your news online and then head to the contact page and email you. To what do you attribute this lead? Most marketers utilizing behavioral marketing data and tactics will attribute this lead generation to the keyword search when in fact the original direct mail played the most important role in getting the prospect’s attention. You can argue that the keyword search was also vital but in fact neither would have succeeded in taking the site visitor to the next stage of the sales cycle in isolation.

Bridging the gap between offline and digital
While many marketers have evolved to take on the digital media world and all its rich opportunities, most continue to operate their offline marketing activities separately.

For many, interaction with your organization and brand takes place offline and online. Facilities such as stores, offices and call centers play a valuable role in driving lead generation and customer satisfaction. But how do you capture offline visitor data and make it meaningful in a contextual marketing capacity? You need to merge online data with offline data sources, such as your CRM database or your customer loyalty database. This is the only way that you can get a clear picture of each and every customer or prospect.

It’s not that difficult to do and by performing analyses across all channels and using data to create customer-centric profiles you can understand behaviors holistically and better target and serve your market.

What’s next?
The adoption of behavioral marketing within mainstream marketing programs and the use of contextual marketing starting to rise, the more sophisticated marketers are acknowledging the value of understanding their customers’ relationship with the brand. Behavioral data in addition to contextual data is what enhances a company’s ability to deliver the right message at the right time in the right way.

As contextual marketing becomes the norm, a new group of thought leaders will emerge. They’ll drive a need for new technology that makes tracking and understanding online visitors even easier. Generating automated but highly personalized marketing campaigns will be a breeze and offline data integration fundamental to day-to-day marketing activity will no longer continue to derail marketing departments.

John Squire is chief strategy officer for Coremetrics.

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