With the advent of digital technologies, the marketing function has gone through a radical transformation.  - IMD Business School

How to optimize your company’s digital marketing efforts

With the advent of digital technologies, the marketing function has gone through a radical transformation. This transformation has been further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
September 2020

While at first the digital was considered as one more channel to cope withmarketers soon realized that digitization was going to fundamentally transform the marketing function. Not surprising, many companies still struggle to cope with the disruptive force of digitization in marketing.  

Building on the experience matured at Zalando in the reshaping of its digital-marketing efforts, in this article we analyze five steps that companies can take to redesign their digital-marketing activities in today’s fast-changing environment. Zalando, Europe’s largest online fashion retailer, sells over 2,000 international brands in 17 European markets. With 145 million orders in 2019 and over 31 million active customers already before the pandemic, Zalando offers a unique company setting to analyze how companies can redefine their digital-marketing activities to remain competitive in the marketplace. 

1. Break down the problem into smaller challenges to address today’s complexities

Digitization has given companies endless possibilities to engage with customers. This has created complexities in the external environment as well as internally. To manage such complexities, companies need to unlock organizational simplicity. In the digital-marketing context, this implies breaking down the critical business problem faced into smaller, focused challenges that are easier to handle. Companies need to begin with a deep understanding of what is most valuable for their customers. Based on that, they can identify which technology can be of best use to help retain existing customers and acquire new ones. Then, they need to define key performance indicators (KPIs) that measure their digital-marketing efforts. Similarly, the complexities associated with A/B testing and content creation need to be addressed in isolation. From an organizational standpoint, this means relying on a simple structure that groups digital-marketing activities into five distinct focused areas: Tracking, Data, A/B Testing, Attribution and Steering (see the table below for further details on each focused area). There is no machine that can do all this. Human insight is crucial to build digital-marketing structure in which the right marketing-technology is in place, teams have clear rights, incentives are aligned, and the interfaces are open, simple, and dynamic. Only by unlocking organizational simplicity, companies can have the agility that is necessary to operate in today’s complex and fast-evolving digital environment. 

The Five Focused Areas

2. Create a dedicated lean and specialized “Personalized Digital Marketing Team”

Within the marketing department, companies need to create a team that is dedicated to lean and specialized personalized digital marketing and structured around the five distinct focused areas mentioned above. This team should be characterized by a marked data-driven culture and a strong propensity for continuous experimentation, empirical testing, and constant learning. The areas of expertise of its members are data science and software engineering. This is because the entire team’s efforts should be focused on testable and scalable digital-marketing activities that can match modern consumers’ rising expectation for tailored recommendations and increasingly individualized mobile engagement. All team members need to share a common approach that involves rigorous assessment of the results obtained through A/B testing, ability to automate and scale, and constant re-appraisal aimed at continuous improvement of the marketing-technology infrastructure in placeZalando’s Personalized Digital Marketing Team was built on these foundations, to personalize the company’s online shop with data-driven and A-B tested customer features to ultimately offer 31 million different marketing approaches to the more than 31 million different customers in Europe. 

3. Focus on the long-term customer value generation

In today’s hyperactive digital environment companies can wrongly conclude that a short-term oriented approach aimed at maximizing returns in single digital interactions can be optimal. On the contrary, companies need to focus on longer-term value creation through measuring cumulative life time value instead of transactional profit. This is because the large part of the impact of digital-marketing efforts comes in the long term. Therefore, it is key for companies to think in terms of customers’ retention and not on single transactions to capture the full value of their digital-marketing activities. To this end, there are three points companies need to focus on. First, companies need to appreciate and anticipate the importance of using “Customer Life Time” KPIs instead of transactional profit contribution as leading indicators. Second, they need to focus on customer retention by establishing net promoter score (NPS) logic. This helps to align the entire organization behind the idea of long-term value generation. While NPS is a good tool for this purpose, the use of other retention metrics also contributes to this end. Third, companies need to direct efforts in building a strong brand. The latest advances in digital-marketing technologies have provided endless opportunities to engage in purely performance-based marketing activities in the online environment. But such activities can lead to superior performance only when accompanied by investments aimed at building a strong and recognizable brand. 

4. Empower local markets to reap the benefits of local non-scalable marketing

As mobile continues to grow, consumers are conducting more searches with hyperlocal intent. Operating across borders also requires companies to consider the several differences that exist between countries, not only in traditional brick-and-mortar markets but also in the online environmentTherefore, companies face the need to increasingly localize their marketing efforts to meet their consumer’s requests wherever they are. While the dedicated lean and specialized Personalized Digital Marketing Team remains accountable for all testable and scalable digital-marketing activities, local markets need to be empowered, giving them direct responsibility for non-scalable activities that can help engage their local customers to satisfy market needs even better. The decision-making process of the Personalized Digital Marketing Team is driven by algorithm-based technologies that are targeted on individual rather than geographical basis. As such, local know-how is not required. Conversely, for all marketing decisions that are testable (and scalable) only to a relatively smaller degree, such as TV campaigns, local knowledge remains crucial. Therefore, companies need to empower local marketing teams to reap the benefit of local non-scalable marketing activities while ensuring global consistency across markets. 

5. Maintain focus on high-volume and engaging content that stimulates customers

In the current digital and fast-evolving environment, customers consume fast and continuously. They want to become part of the conversation and are eager to share authentic and relevant stories. However, these stories have a short shelf life. To ensure customers don’t get bored and tired, companies need to establish a continuous and high-volume flow of digital content. Today’s marketing efforts need to be surely focused on software and algorithm-based technologies. But companies cannot underestimate the importance of producing high-volume content. High-quality because consumers feel engaged by attractive content. High-volume because consumers want to be continuously surprised by novelties in today’s hyperactive environmentFor this reason, Zalando bundled the creation and production teams under the roof of Zalando Studios to precisely ensure a continuous, high-volume flow of engaging content. ‘Get the Look’ with Zalando, which provides customers with inspiring styles of the day, is a feature that Zalando has plugged into Facebook to offer customized recommendations in the digital space. This is an example of the focus that Zalando has placed on the creation of engaging and scalable digital content to be used for its marketing efforts. 

Digitization has radically transformed the marketing functionMoving forward and beyond marketing, digitization will continue to change how companies work, prompting the application of a data-driven approach based on A/B testing to an increasing number of investment decisions within organizations. For instance, sales decisions on how to present and recommend a product to a given consumer will increasingly be made using data-driven and A/B tested insights. Likewise, decisions on pricing and payments are expected to follow the same trajectory. Therefore, the ongoing transformation is far from over. 

Companies need to reshape their digital-marketing efforts to remain competitive. The five steps we identified can help companies redesign their digital-marketing activities in today’s fast-changing environment. What comes next? Thinking in terms of platforms will increasingly be the way to capture value from companies’ digital presence in today’s fast evolving environment. This is because companies operating large digital platforms will have the digital exposure to outperform competitors in all the five key focused areas that we identified earlier—Tracking, Data, A/B Testing, Attribution, and Steering. 

Moritz Hahn is a Member of the Zalando Executive Committee. Niccolò Pisani is Professor of Strategy and International Business at IMD.


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