3 Steps Brands Can Take to Have Personalized Conversations With Consumers in the Age of Automation

Programmatic is transforming traditional advertising into advising

Brands need to scale word of mouth while maintaining customization akin to recommendations from friends. Getty Images
Headshot of Charlie Fiordalis

The equation is out of whack. We all know that ads are the price of content, but for an increasing number of people, the content isn’t worth the exchange. Ad blocking is on the rise, video streaming piracy is soaring and very few people feel morally wrong.

People need products that meet their needs and solve problems. They don’t need advertising; they need to be able to navigate complex and confusing choices to make the best decision. Which product to choose? More than any other source, people trust word of mouth.

Charlie Fiordalis
Illustration by Alex Fine

There’s a lot of noise out there and it’s hard to know what’s real. Even before the “fake news” cycle sharpened our critical eyes to a glassy point, we’ve all learned to be skeptical of the self-praise that brands lavish on themselves in owned channels. We trust an actual person’s experience with a brand more than we trust a brand’s experience with itself. It’s powerful stuff—according to a report from ModernComment, 90 percent of consumers search for reviews before purchasing a product. And according to a 2009 report from the Journal of Marketing, consumers who read compelling reviews spend two times more than the average consumer and make twice as many referrals.

At the most literal level, word of mouth is a friend advising you of the right choice to make. And who hasn’t asked their Facebook friends something like, “Know a good product for getting rid of head lice?” (OK, I really hope you don’t have to ask them that, but you know what I mean.) Friends recommend solutions in a trusted voice, and they fully customize the answer to you. They produce custom creative for you on the fly. It’s the 1:1 dream delivered.

The challenge is getting scale on word of mouth while maintaining the 1:1 custom promise. Product reviews on owned properties and sites like Amazon are a solid strategy to reach people who are already researching. Influencers are a logical extension to spread the word because they have trust and produce creative in their own voice, but brands give up control when they work with influencers and that isn’t always an option.

Even if it’s an option, the recent PewDiePie and Under Armour developments are a reminder of the inherent risks. In both cases, a rift grew between the voice of the brand and the voice of the influencer—in the first, the brand distanced itself from the influencer and in the second, amazingly, the influencers distanced themselves from the brand.

As a brand, the ideal is personalized conversations with customers in their moment of decision. Not advertising, but advising.

In a technocratic twist of plot, automated media systems now make this personal, human storytelling possible at scale. I believe programmatic has grown so quickly—faster than even eMarketer predicted—because it enables the shift from advertising to advising. Follow this basic framework to build out automated conversations at scale:

Data: The first step is using data to identify each audience, and we can go more granularly than ever before based on behavioral segmentation. Gather all of your owned first-party data, rented second-party data (other people’s first-party data) and set up campaigns to leverage third-party data. Use it to build out target audiences and identify media receptivity insights on each. This is what people mean when they talk about an “audience first” approach.

Media: The data phase creates the brief and the fuel. The second step is identifying the moments of media receptivity and creating a cadence of media moments to drive action. Build a strategy around reaching each audience in receptive moments. Set up a basic plan to test out the number and kinds of media touches needed to get the results you’re looking for.

Creative: The final step is identifying or developing the creative necessary to fuel each of these touch points for each audience. You can’t have individual conversations at scale without a robust script. Increasingly, each media touch point has its own creative format (think Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram) and requires expertise to author.

So who’s doing it right? Neutrogena won well-deserved recognition in Adweek’s Media Plan of the Year Awards for its use of programmatic storytelling to drive sales through custom, contextual recommendations. Also Celebrity Cruises (full disclosure: a Media Storm client) was recently recognized by Sheryl Sandberg in a Facebook earnings call for its use of data-driven, dynamic ads to have tailored communication with each person.

Advise rather than advertise. Don’t just tell your brand’s story in advertisements. Develop and act on powerful media insights to advise each audience, and we’ll be able to balance the advertising equation again.

Claim to fame This year, Charlie Fiordalis, chief digital officer at Media Storm, will write a quarterly column for Adweek on how technology is reshaping the role of the media agency.
Base New York
Twitter @admergency

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@admergency Charlie Fiordalis is managing partner at MediaCom.