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Why marketers shouldn’t let the ‘science overtake the art’ as the world goes more digital

October 17, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

According to Visa, digital transactions are up 25% since before the pandemic. That’s a shift Visa takes credit for, but not just because its technology underpins those transactions.

Visa’s marketing team made a concerted effort to convince consumers around the world—some of whom had never conducted a digital transaction previously, let alone daily—to change their behavior at a time when paying for essentials in-person had become unsafe. It did the same for businesses. Some did not have a website pre-pandemic; others did not have the ability to sell their products and services online.

“Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we kind of turned into a PSA machine,” said Lynne Biggar, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Visa. “Our job was to just describe to people, how do you make an online transaction? It’s safe to make an online transaction, and it’s the right thing to do to make an online transaction.”

Biggar spoke about Visa’s education-based marketing strategy at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. She described how the company also focused its messaging on consumers’ immediate needs amid the pandemic, such as the fact that Visa supplies technology that allows people to be paid more often or more quickly, or that allows people to send money orders to loved ones back home.

Touching on what matters to consumers in the moment has always been key in the hospitality industry, explained Claire Bennett, global chief customer officer of IHG Hotels & Resorts. And in hospitality, she said with excitement, “it’s time to start marketing again” after months of efforts to reduce demand for the sake of public health. 

“We have to think about, how do people want to come back?” Bennett said “Some people are scared. Some people are super excited and don’t care at all about safety and security. So it’s thinking through every one of those customer bases.” Then there is the business conference element of the hotel business, and customer needs in that realm have changed, too. Suddenly, IHG has had more requests to facilitate “hybrid meetings,” during which some attendees are tuning in remotely.

In thinking about meeting various needs, Bennett also emphasized that a single customer can have different “modes” depending on the context in which they’re traveling.

“All of us are different when we travel. Sometimes we’re the business woman who’s checking in in Asia at 3 o’clock in the morning after we’ve been on a flight all night. Sometimes we’re with our girlfriends. Sometimes we’re with our children,” Bennett said. Technology, however, is not necessarily discerning enough to cater to a customer in their various modes—for an example, a hotel’s app used for booking, check-in, and loyalty can’t readily tell what kind of trip the guest, or user, is taking.

Carla Piñeyro Sublett, senior vice president and CMO at IBM, said she is aware of this problem, and how marketing technology can be dehumanizing. It’s important, Piñeyro Sublett said, to remember, that “unique visitors” are actually real people. “We’ve let the science overtake the art,” she warned.

“It goes beyond just trying to drive traffic or trying to convert a lead,” Piñeyro Sublett said. “Are we truly giving them what they need? Are we truly helping them solve the problems that they have?”

Data privacy goes hand in hand with building relationships and trust, added Salesforce president and CMO Sarah Franklin. Marketers need to focus on security not just for compliance reasons, but to attract and retain customers. People are more wary of opting in and sharing their data these days. She outlined a couple of key ways to mitigate this. “You need to now build your first-party owned data. The cookie-less future is staring us in the face,” Franklin explained. “And you need to build a subscription to your brand,” she added, but stressed that airtight and ethical data management must be the foundation of such a system.

Piñeyro Sublett said new cybersecurity requirements should be a welcome “constraint” for marketers, who in the past have abused the data at their disposal. Visa’s Biggar, too, mentioned that the biggest misstep marketers have made lately is the “overuse of data.”

“That’s probably a provocative perspective from a tech marketer,” Piñeyro Sublett said.” But I think that it’s going to force us to really think about how we attract clients to us, versus push information to them constantly.” 

Once marketers have the science down pat, as Piñeyro Sublett put it, they have to prioritize the art. She cited a stat that next year, 82% of the content that people will be looking at online will be video—15 times the amount they consumed in 2017. That means marketing budgets are making more room for premium, literally cinematic content.

“You used to hire copywriters. Now, you hire script writers. You used to hire, like, webinar people. Now, you hire broadcast producers,” Franklin said. “There’s this incredible opportunity right now to hire new talent, to bring in new people, to bring in new thinking, new voices. You want to have that incredible marriage between education and entertainment, so that people want to binge-watch your brand.”

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