When I was a kid, I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. In these stories, readers assume the protagonist role and make choices along the way that takes them to one of a handful of endings. My curiosity had me obsessed with knowing every ending. I’d bookmark a page with a decision, see how the story played out, then go back to that decision and eagerly read all of the other endings. This fun childhood memory got me thinking about the evolution of direct marketing and customer journeys from a content perspective — and how it can be a huge opportunity for brands today.
In the beginning: a single story for all
The early days of direct response marketing were equivalent to any book with a linear plotline that readers follow from cover to cover. A company mails fliers to 1,000 consumers, who all receive the same piece of content that was created and printed ahead of time. If 100 replied to the offer, the brand could happily chalk up a 10% response rate. The better the story (content), the greater the response.
The birth of journeys: forging new paths
As things evolved, customer journeys became the hallmark of direct marketing. Journey builders provide marketers with a way to map out multi-stage interaction flows across email, web, direct mail, SMS, kiosk and other customer touchpoints. Journeys are usually trigger-based and built around reacting to various customer actions, such as downloading an app, signing up for an email, or abandoning a shopping cart.
The typical customer journey workflow uses an “if x then y” logic similar to the plot forks in Choose Your Own Adventure books. But are consumers really choosing their own adventure, or just consuming a bunch of content variations that would set me on a path decided by a brand in advance? Choose Your Own Adventure books were an evolution of storytelling from a single linear story, but there were not infinite endings. There were maybe five different conclusions, and all the content was decided and written in advance.
The next phase: infinite content possibilities
Many digital marketers agree that journeys have evolved. They are no longer linear and don’t always follow prescribed paths. Yet, there is still a massive opportunity to enhance the customer journey based on the content a brand presents along the path. This next phase of the customer journey is less about path (though that is important) and more about the content and experience along the way. Traditionally, when a marketer runs a campaign, all of the creative assets need to be assembled ahead of time, just like those prewritten endings to the Choose Your Own Adventure books. As such, there are only a limited number of pieces of content you can present to any consumer. Having content pre-assembled for every customer and every potential path is impossible.
Technology that brings together data and creative allows marketers to look at where the customer is in the moment, understand the sum total past interactions, and serve up the perfect content in real time — instead of having only a handful of pre-assembled pathways like those Choose Your Own Adventure books. Evaluating what to show in the moment is much simpler. The marketer still needs to prescribe actions and set rules but doesn’t need to know (and prepare in advance) content for every single possible permutation. This is more like a live Choose Your Own Adventure, where you turn the page and the next part of the story is written in real time based on you as an individual reader.
Why does this matter?
The ability to assemble content in real time for every potential scenario and every individual consumer opens up a huge opportunity for marketers to enhance their journey mapping strategy and create better efficiencies within their businesses.
Marketers can build beautiful multi-stage campaigns (a tree), but are then left with the need to create the messages that show up at each of the nodes (the leaves). Often these messages have to be personalized based on the interactions in each previous step of the customer journey. This is a massive challenge — especially in today’s visual era — where marketers are faced with a false choice of either serving up personalized visual content on a small scale or presenting generic content on a mass scale.
Additionally, marketers are faced with resource constraints. There are only so many hours in a day and people on a marketing team who create content for various campaigns, which means that content can be a major bottleneck. To deal with this, many marketers simply opt to send out segmented campaigns supported by a focused trigger program.
But customer journeys have evolved, and although segments and triggers are effective, they may not tell the story best suited to each customer. Leveraging technology to combine data with creative can solve the content bottleneck and help brands enhance the customer experience with content that comes together in the moment.
Now is the time for marketers to adjust their content strategies to respond to customers in real time with relevant, helpful information at every stage of the buying process no matter what “adventure” the customer chooses along the way.
Vivek Sharma is chief executive officer of Movable Ink