Think back to the last time you ventured into a big-box store. Remember anything different? Probably not—pretty much the same cold floors, ceilings and monotonous floor plan as the rest of them.

And if you have a question, your smartphone is almost certainly the easiest way forward. The once great retail customer experience has been reduced to little more than perhaps a less-wobbly shopping cart.

While retail has, for the most part, failed miserably at prioritizing the customer experience, some industries are starting to invest heavily towards ensuring that customer experiences are consistent across all channels—traditional and digital. Consistent customer experiences, however, rarely equate to remarkable customer experiences.

Moving Towards a “Digital First” Culture

Leaders talk a lot about improving the customer experience, but most fail to actually break down that experience to even know where to begin to move the needle. And to actually get there, companies must begin to think “digital first.” Today’s omni-channel decision and purchase paths require company-wide shifts towards complete digital transformation, which is a scary set of words to those who don’t understand exactly what that means.

Digital transformation used to be technology-driven. Today, digitally transforming organizations is more about the people and processes that deliver on the technology than the technology itself. Tools change often. The challenge is ensuring that the organization is prepared to leverage the right tools to positively impact customer experiences and, consequently, top-line growth.

Digital ExcellencePutting digital first within an organization means that the entire company supports the cultural shift necessary to learn from and leverage digital across every consumer touch point— traditional included. And that means using digital tools, data, analytics and creativity to drive engagement by delivering the right content, to the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

Identifying Audience Personas and Mapping Their Journeys

Proper engagement requires an in-depth understanding of the target audience. Traditional media demographics are simply too broad to develop any meaningful preference or behavioral patterns. Luckily, digital introduces a plethora of data to help us identify very specific human behaviors—both online and offline. But collecting data is much easier than knowing when, where and how to act upon that data.

Data analysis, performed correctly, generates stories. Real customers tell even better stories. So, developing audience personas and journey maps should not be driven by data alone. Engaging with existing customers is crucial to validate or expand upon what data suggests.

Along each customer journey, there are both leverage and touch points. Leverage points are generally decision-making pivots that present opportunities for marketers to influence positive outcomes—promotions, product or service reviews, etc. Touch points are opportunities for customers and brands to engage one another, activated by either party—website, search, social, etc. Once identified, both leverage and touch points need to be prioritized with well-timed tactics planned around each one accordingly.

Activating Leverage and Touch Points

As customer journeys and supporting data are analyzed, creative ideas and tactics should begin to spawn around individual touch points. This is where old-school marketing principles fall short. Long-term planning doesn’t translate very well to digital. A much more agile, test-and-learn approach is almost required to succeed.

Not to mention, the traditional sales funnel is all but dead. While there are still specific entry and exit points along every customer journey, those journeys can look very different for each persona—for each individual. Given today’s dynamic digital ecosystem, a one-size-fits-all funnel approach simply will not work for the vast majority of companies.

Agile and Experimental, But Highly Accountable

Agile marketing isn’t new. It is, however, dangerous if not aligned with company goals and objectives. Rationalization of the agile methodology is outside of the scope of this discussion, but rapidly micro-testing digital tactics to learn from and inform other tactics is critical to the larger success of digital as a whole. Measuring those tests in a meaningful way against business objectives is where so many fail.

Testing a specific set of criteria is one thing; trying something completely new is another. There are companies with entire teams dedicated to experimental marketing. It is rare, though, that those teams are in-sync with the rest of the organization (or vice-versa). In many cases, marketers play the “experimental marketing” card when their own tests show negative results— much like how many old-school marketers used “branding” as an excuse when traditional media campaigns tanked. But failing is part of succeeding in digital. You have to test. You have to learn. No single tactic works for every company. It didn’t with traditional media; it doesn’t with digital.

Which brings us to accountability. While experiments and testing are necessary investments, at some point, digital tactics have to provide lift to specific business metrics. Baseline KPIs and reporting methodologies should be determined up front, with the understanding that reporting itself matures over time. Marketers need to determine early on which data should or should not be included in individual reports, and which dashboard views are most beneficial to specific audiences. Again, a one-size-fits-all approach is not likely to prove successful.

Digital Excellence Above and Beyond Tactics

There are hundreds of great articles posted every day targeting tactical teams: how to build a better website, how to be more engaging on social media, how to get more organic traffic, and so on. What needs to be discussed more often is the idea of approaching digital much more holistically—people, processes, tools and technology. Digital is so fragmented that even the most successful of companies struggle to find their way. Yes, digital teams often do great work, no doubt. We’ve also witnessed amazing digital campaigns come out of various agencies, big and small. Those tactical efforts, however, do not equate to digital excellence. Incredible creativity, perfect timing and even a little luck…sure. A critical piece of the digital excellence pie…absolutely.

Digital excellence is more cultural than that. All of those great tactics need to come together to support common business goals. Digital tactics need to be measured not just against historic metrics within the same platform or channel, but against everything the company is doing. And if certain tactics prove to be more opportune than others, there’s no room for territorial quarrels between channel managers or cross-functional teams. It’s time to break down silos and embrace a more collaborative structure. Let data lead the way and creativity drive it home.

Michael Turner Michael Turner

Director of Digital Strategy at Station Four