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How to Use Data to Create Content That Deepens Customer Relationships

businessmen shaking handsA core goal of content marketing is to build engaged audiences through the information and experiences they value. It goes beyond just optimizing a single click or purchase path, to generating loyalty. If you want to deliver relationship-building experiences with the right content delivered at the right moment to the right person, you need the right data. In this article, I explore how data can be used to create content that deepens customer relationships — rather than just optimizing a single transaction.

Look beyond IP address

If you’ve ever been on the hiring end of an organization, reviewing applications and interviewing candidates, you know there can be a world of difference between the person presented on paper and the person who walks into your office. Resumes can help you weed out the unqualified — Mr. Jones has zero experience in the job field, or Ms. Smith has no references — but they can’t tell you everything you need to know to make a good decision. You need the face-to-face, personal connection to tell you if this person can actually communicate effectively or think on their feet, and whether they are genuinely passionate about your business goals.

The best interview questions are open-ended, drawing an unscripted, expressive, and detailed response from the applicant. Their resume might tell you that they studied music before getting their MBA, but it can’t tell you how their amateur conducting experience shapes the way they manage employees, orchestrating each individual’s strengths into a symphony of productivity. You have to spend time with the applicant, asking them to talk about their ideal work environment, obstacles they’ve overcome, and weekend obsessions, before the person on paper comes to life. And you have to do your own digging on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more, for further insight into their character. The same is true of using customer data to create the right content for them.

Can personal relationships be built on data?

You may be able to see what content a customer likes, what products they purchase, what time of day they visit your app, and from what device. You may know their name, age, gender, location, industry, income, and marital status. But do you know their pet peeves and worries? Their dreams and desires? Their happiest moment of the day? Favorite indulgences? Greatest sources of pride?

Okay, so you’re not going to learn every intimate detail about your customers, but without some glimpses into the vividly human aspects of their lives, you’ll never have what it takes to turn customer data into customer relationships through quality content creation.

Airline loyalty programs offer a great illustration of the role data plays in building strong customer relationships. With each new flight booked, airline staff gains access to more information on an individual’s flying habits, frequency, and preferences. During online check-in, or in person at the baggage kiosk, the airline has an opportunity to reinforce its relationship with customers by anticipating their desires, streamlining processes, and delivering the right content for their needs.

For example, what if, when you went to book a ticket, the airline had your seat preferences pre-loaded? Or the third time you paid for in-flight Wi-Fi, it offered you complimentary Wi-Fi on your next journey? In fact, any company with multiple web, mobile, and in-person touch-points must base its customer relationships on data in order to provide seamless brand experiences.

Can customer relationships truly be built on data? In short, yes. In the absence of daily face-to-face interactions (like the ones people used to have with their grocers, butchers, barbers, and bank tellers), data is what allows the digital marketer to have relationships with customers at all. When you look for it, data holds flashes of insight that can illuminate the faces behind the numbers and show us how to make the customer experience more personal, human, genuine, and continuous.

What’s missing from my customer data?

Great customer data looks different for each organization, but it’s defined by the same three characteristics:

  • It’s owned by you: Use real-time data gathered by your own sites, apps, and CRM systems — not acquired from an outside source. Though third-party data can certainly be useful, your data is best because it’s wholly unique, giving you the advantage over competition. And it’s tied to the people who matter most: your actual, current customers.

Your own data will also be specific to the interactions you have with your customers. Third-party data can be great when starting with an anonymous, first-time user, but the data should deepen and grow more complex as the customer relationship grows.

You can gather your own data from many sources. For example, track visits and interactions across your social accounts, mobile apps, and websites. Measure sharing and engagement on your content marketing efforts. Solicit customer participation and feedback. Anywhere you have a customer touch-point, you have a data stream.

For example, the kiosk-based movie rental company, Redbox, considered customer data and interactions from multiple channels to determine which marketing efforts were most valuable. By analyzing visitor behavior on, the company was able to identify “where some customers lost their way on the path to conversion.” The data revealed that some users were having trouble getting relevant and accurate search results through the site’s search function. It also showed that the search function played a role in more than half of conversions. With this insight, the company made search functionality and product-related content the top UX priority.

  • It’s contextual: Contextual data is highly relevant. It’s about the customer’s wants, needs, goals, hopes, and behaviors at critical points of brand interaction. Accessing the relevant, in-the-moment data enables companies to provide the right content — personalized and driven by the customer’s immediate needs — at the right time. Contextual data underpins great content and great customer experiences — the kind of experiences that keep them coming back.

In particular, as mobile content experiences become more personal and channels proliferate, contextual data is more important than ever. For example, on a recent trip to a new city, I pulled up my Uber app to get a quote for a ride. The quote looked good, so I searched for and booked a car, and when the driver arrived, he already had my destination punched into his GPS. Uber anticipated that if I’d just searched for a fare quote to a particular address, chances are that’s where I’d ask my next driver to take me. This is a profoundly simple application of contextual data, yet it left a big impression on me, and made me feel more connected to the app and brand, viewing them as a navigational ally in my daily life.

Here’s another example: The resort casino, Mohegan Sun, wanted to create a new website that would better convey the amazing in-person experience it provides to visitors. The company enhanced the personalization of its website content to provide intuitive vacation and event booking. It also connected the site with loyalty program data, which it used to target its most valuable customers with content on special offers and preferred features. Mohegan Sun’s website visitors can also find restaurants, shops, details on casino games, property maps, and up-to-date event details, making it a true one-stop site. This added attention to context simplifies the individual’s path to purchase, and helps build trust in the Mohegan brand.

  • It’s integrated: Integration unites disparate data points, pulling descriptive, behavioral, and qualitative information together around a unique person and helping to create a single, current view of that customer. This empowers marketers to keep the customer’s whole picture in mind — and to act quickly to provide them with the right content.

U.S. Bank has used data integration to analyze user behavior, segment audiences at granular levels, and optimize web content it delivers. The financial institution includes data from its online and offline channels, so its team can accurately understand how customers interact with the bank at all touch-points. It then feeds this data and insight back to call centers to improve lead targeting.

Integration is about more than digital channels, reaching into in-person and phone interactions, as well. It means tying all the data together around buyer personas, and making it available at all stages of the customer journey. Customer data integration requires a common customer profile and identifier across all interactions. In “real life” relationships, when I talk to someone on the phone, in person, or over email, I carry with me memories of our past interactions, regardless of where and how they occurred — my understanding of them is not limited by the channel through which we’re communicating. Similarly, companies must stop thinking of their channels as distinct from one another.

Today’s digital enterprises most likely have an abundance of customer data, or can easily begin to gather more. Chances are what’s missing from your data is one of the three things listed above: your own customers, their contexts, or the technology to integrate it all into a single view.

Continually update your data for maximum results

You can leverage your unique data to grow genuine, lasting customer relationships by letting the data inform your acquisition and engagement strategies. As your customer view becomes more in-depth and complete, you will be able to share current and consistent customer views across your organization, increase the relevance and appeal of your content, and get the right message to the right individuals at the right time.

To keep improving, you’ll need to consistently measure and compare data over time, and continually seek new and more relevant data sources. And you’ll also need to do what surprisingly few brands do: Ask customers for their preferences, information, feedback, and expectations. When it comes to customer data, the more relevant, aware, and integrated yours is, the more personalized, valuable experiences you can offer, and the more resilient your customer relationships will become.

Understanding your audience is one of the most essential requirements for successful content marketing. Get helpful tips for managing this challenge — and others — in CMI’s eBook, Building the Perfect Content Marketing Mix: Internal Processes and Content Marketing Strategy Tactics.

Cover image by Reynermedia via Flickr Commons