CIO and CMO. Until very recently, many still believed these two roles couldn’t be more extreme in their differences. The stereotypical CMO was creative and guided by gut feel, whereas the CIO was steadfast, risk averse and driven by empirical evidence. The emergence of the real-time web and its impact on customer expectations has pulled these two seemingly polar opposite disciplines much closer together. Real-time services like Twitter, Facebook and improved behavioral targeting technologies are pushing consumer expectations for instant, extremely personalized experiences to an all-time high.
This trend has forced the CIO and CMO to work in lockstep on digital marketing initiatives aimed at staying as close as possible to what the customer wants.
However, the reality is that while both sides understand their shared goals depend on working with the other, the relationship between the CIO and CMO is more often not a happy marriage. According to the CMO Council’s recent CMO-CIO Alignment Imperative report, there is a good amount of consensus among CMOs and CIOs on the central role of technology in improving the customer experience, but neither group feels like they are getting the job done.
Their single biggest struggle has become all about figuring out ways to adapt the experience – across the web as well as via mobile and email – to seemingly insatiable user expectations. This sentiment is consistent with recent M&A activity that signals the importance of web optimization technology: Adobe acquired Omniture last September; and IBM has gobbled up CoreMetrics, Unica, and most recently, Netezza for $1.7B.
The reality, however, is that current optimization approaches are still very manual and provide a rear-view mirror look at customer intent, making it impossible to target the customer in an accurate and scalable way. Alas, the CIO/CMO dilemma continues.
What we need is to build a smarter approach that allows companies to adapt to their customers’ needs in real-time. The concept of collective intelligence, which I’ll address below, will be critical to achieving this vision -- something I like to think of as an “adaptive web.” That is, a digital experience that is always relevant and based on users’ current intent and interests. It also must be device-agnostic, especially important given the increased mobility of the online experience -- a challenge analyst firm Forrester calls “the Splinternet.”
The adaptive web is in fact central to what Gartner calls “Context-Aware Computing”, the idea that social analytics and computing will produce knowledge about individual context and preferences, allowing companies to predict and serve them what they want. According to Gartner, this model adapts interactions with the customer based on context, in contrast to today’s experience which is very reactive.
So, how close are we to building a truly end-to-end adaptive web?
To no surprise, there are numerous technical and psychological challenges for building an adaptive web. Namely, I see three primary roadblocks:
- Privacy Issues: To deliver adaptive experiences, we have to pay attention to what people are doing online in the first place. Different users have varying levels of comfort. We’ll have to find some sort of middle ground where the value of an adaptive experience greatly outweighs users’ privacy concerns.
- Deciding on the Method: Second, there’s determining the approach itself. Do we need a “metalayer” over the web? Some sort of toolbar or plug-in that could connect users’ entire web experiences across devices? Do ISPs need to get involved at the network level to watch every site users’ visit and how they engage with it? These are all options to consider – some more realistic than others - but the path is murky at best at this point.
- Determining Users’ Intents: The third obstacle is the biggest obstacle of all: pure science. It’s not a trivial problem to automatically pinpoint and serve up an experience based on a user’s current intent and context. As someone who has devoted his life’s work to studying human/computer interaction, I can’t emphasize this enough. Predicting what people want and need, and adapting their web experience in real-time is perhaps one of the remaining “big picture” challenges facing technologists.
Let’s revisit collective intelligence and its role in making the adaptive web a reality. Collective intelligence refers to the process of gathering insight from a group of like-minded individuals online, often implicitly, based on their shared navigation and engagement patterns. A central concept of collective intelligence is to aggregate behaviors of the silent majority of visitors across the spectrum of digital channels, augment that information with the expertise of super-users and provide the most relevant information that meets every individual user’s goals.
An obvious benefit to using collective intelligence is one of mere scale: it enables machines to draw conclusions about an individual's current intent based on the knowledge and experiences of the larger community. It also gives us the power to efficiently deliver automated and real-time experiences to users. This would be very difficult within any user-by-user scenario, which again poses enormous difficulties in matters of scale.
The CIO and CMO understand why their success depends on better IT/marketing alignment. Now, the challenge will be for them to deliver. While there’s no silver bullet, I believe collective intelligence has the potential to help them form a much more harmonious and strategic partnership. CIOs and CMOs must formulate their strategies for collective intelligence, context-aware computing and other technologies enabling the adaptive web right away.
Not doing so will have profound implications for their organizations, most notably lost revenues and customer loyalty.
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