360 Degrees of Seperation

First published December 5, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

IMT_iconsIn the past two decades or so, a lot of marketers talked about gaining a 360-degree view of their customers.  I’m not exactly sure what this means, so I looked it up.  Apparently, for most marketers, it means having a comprehensive record of every touch point a customer has had with a company. Originally, it was the promise of CRM vendors, where anyone in an organization, at any time, can pull up a complete customer history.

So far, so good.

But like many phrases, it’s been appropriated by marketers and its meaning has become blurred. Today, it’s bandied about in marketing meetings, where everyone nods knowingly, confident in the fact that they are firmly ensconced in the customer’s cranium and have all things completely under control. “We have a 360-degree view of our customers,” the marketing manager beams, and woe to anyone that dares question it.

But there are no standard criteria that you have to meet before you use the term. There is no rubber-meets-the-road threshold you have to climb over. No one knows exactly what the hell it means. It sure sounds good, though!

If a company is truly striving to build as complete a picture of their customers as possible, they probably define 360 degrees as the total scope of a customer’s interaction with their company. This would follow the original CRM definition. In marketing terms, it would mean every marketing touch point and would hopefully extend through the customer’s entire relationship with that company. This would be 360-degrees as defined by Big Data.

But is it actually 360 degrees? If we envision this as a Venn diagram, we have one 360-degree sphere representing the mental model of customers, including all the things they care about. We have another 360-degree sphere representing the footprint of the company and all the things they do. What we’re actually looking at then, even in an ideal world, is where those two spheres intersect. At best, we’re looking at a relatively small chunk of each sphere.

So let’s flip this idea on its head. What if we redefine 360 degrees as understanding the customer’s decision space? I call this the Buyersphere. The traditional view of 360 degrees is from the inside looking out, from the company’s perspective. The Buyersphere moves the perspective to that of the customer, looking from the outside in. It expands the scope to include the events that lead to consideration, the competitive comparisons, the balancing of buying factors, interactions with all potential candidates and the branches of the buying path itself.  What if you decide to become the best at mapping that mental space?  I still wouldn’t call it a 360-degree view, but it would be a view that very few of your competitors would have.

One of the things that I believe is holding Big Data back is that we don’t have a frame within which to use Big Data. Peter Norvig, chief researcher for Google, outlined 17 warning signs in experimental design and interpretation. One was lack of a specific hypothesis, and the other was a lack of a theory. You need a conceptual frame from which to construct a theory, and then, from that theory, you can decide on a specific hypothesis for validation. It’s this construct that helps you separate signal from noise. Without the construct, you’re relying on serendipity to identify meaningful patterns, and we humans have a nasty tendency to mistake noise for patterns.

If we look at opportunities for establishing a competitive advantage, redefining what we mean by understanding our customers is a pretty compelling one. This is a construct that can provide a robust and testable space within which to use Big Data and other, more qualitative, approaches. It’s relatively doable for any organization to consolidate its data to provide a fairly comprehensive “inside-out” view of customer’s touch points. Essentially, it’s a logistical exercise. I won’t say it’s easy, but it is doable.  But if we set our goal a little differently, working to achieve a true “outside-in” view of our company, that sets the bar substantially higher.

360 degrees? Maybe not. But it’s a much broader view than most marketers have.

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