Marketers have more information than ever about consumer behavior. So why is it still hard to make a connection?

As more marketing dollars shift toward digital media, the dizzying volume of data generated by ever-evolving programs and platforms can make planning and measuring an integrated campaign completely overwhelming. That’s why Sawyer Business School faculty and students brought digital marketing industry professionals together with academic researchers at the recent Bridging the Gap knowledge-sharing conference held at Suffolk University. 

Experts shared advice on which trends marketers should embrace—and which “tried and tested” tactics to toss. Here are four key takeaways:

1. Pay attention to who’s telling your brand story

Marketing these days is all about the brand narrative. MIT Sloan School of Management research scientist Renee Richardson Gosline validates this approach — storytelling has been proven to create deeper and more lasting connections with audiences — but her work places new emphasis on the storytellers themselves. 

Gosline recently studied the effectiveness of a social media campaign for a luxury automaker. Her experiment tested consumer perceptions of the brand narrative when it was told by the brand itself, by consumers posting on their own social media channels, and by consumer storytelling featured on the brand’s channels. Gosline found the most impactful narratives combined the authenticity of the consumer’s voice with the legitimacy of the brand’s platform. 

The takeaway: There’s a sweet spot between monopolizing and losing control of your brand narrative. Partner with your customers to tell your brand story together. 

2. “Location, location, location” isn’t always the key to search engine marketing (SEM) 

Paying top dollar to be the first or second ad shown in a Google search result is the best way to generate clicks, right? Not necessarily, says Sawyer Business School Marketing Professor Ming Cheng.

According to Cheng, that approach is only effective when a customer is in the initial information-gathering stage of their search. If they’re planning a trip to Boston, for example, their first searches will be broad inquiries about hotels in the area. In that case, it’s worth bidding on pricier placement because that nascent searcher is most likely to click on a top result. That’s not the case as that same consumer progresses through their inquiry process, according to Cheng’s research, which found that users in later stages of decision-making prefer keyword specificity and actionable results to top placements. That Boston traveler will look for specific hotel brands or neighborhood locations as he or she becomes more informed.

The takeaway: Marketers should move beyond just bidding for the top spots and allocate SEM budgets and tactics to reach their customers at all stages of the search process.

3. Create a cultural moment to catch people’s hearts

What’s the best way to sell a new shoe? For Reebok’s Sarah Lunn the answer is obvious: Put the shoes on her customers’ feet. That’s what she and her team have been doing around the country with fun “Try On” events designed to engage users. Folks put on the new kicks, jump on special mats, snap and share pictures and video on social media -- and start to develop a relationship with the brand based on the shared experience. 

Cercone Brown Company’s Erika Brown calls this approach “catching the heart.” A decade ago, Brown’s company was marketing a new mountain bike—but how could it help trade journalists truly appreciate the product from their city offices? The company came up with the concept of The CBC House, bringing editors and influencers together with makers and public relations pros to explore new products in a relaxed, natural setting. The program is so successful that it now runs multiple times a year. These days it yields more than traditional product reviews as participants Instagram, Snapchat and tweet their authentic experiences from The House.  

House Program Reel from CerconeBrownCompany on Vimeo.

The takeaway: Relationships are built on shared experiences. Cultivate awareness and loyalty with your target audience through fun, informative, experiential campaigns. 

4. Remember we live in a “phygital” world 

Love or hate the buzzword, says DigitasLBi’s Brett Leary, but never forget that the physical and digital spaces are now intertwined. This convergence means the most effective marketing uses data to personalize digital and physical interactions—breaking down business silos in the process.

Gathering, analyzing, and acting on consumer data is a team effort. Trillions of dollars are spent annually in the retail sector, and over half of those dollars are directly influenced by digital activities such as social media and online reviews, says Leary. And thanks to data gleaned from technology such as cell phones, wearables, and RFID-tagged products, in-store behavior is easier than ever to track and predict. 

The takeaway: Working together, digital marketers, data analysts, and retail operations teams can use data to deliver the right messages at the right times to the right customers. 

Bridging the Gap speakers

Reebok's Sarah Lunn; Erika Brown from Cercone Brown Company; Renee Richardson Gosline from the MIT Sloan School of Management