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Marketers are struggling to respond to the challenges of 'big data' as new digital channels gather pace, according to Richard Kellett, director of marketing for SAS in the UK and Ireland, who explains here how marketers can close the 'multi-channel marketing gap'. This article is copyright 2012 The Best Customer Guide.

The rapid rise of digital channels has undoubtedly transformed the marketing landscape. SAS recently surveyed nearly 1,000 UK marketers about social media spend, skills and attitudes toward emerging channels such as social and mobile. The research found that nearly half of all marketing budgets are now spent on digital channels, with social media now overtaking search and investment in the corporate website and email remaining strong.

At the same time, the era of big data is upon us with marketers now having access to increasing amounts of customer data proliferated through the use of digital channels. This presents huge opportunities as well as challenges. However, while uptake for social is high and mobile gains pace, few marketers feel confident that they have the skills to manage and, more importantly, measure the impact of these emerging channels.

The growth of social
UK marketers are leading the way in Europe with the adoption of social media. In just three years the use of social media has grown by 20%, overtaking search, which is remarkable given that the return on investment is higher for search. Social media is now given a higher rating for importance by UK marketers than any other channel.

This falls in line with reports from Forrester which found that more marketers expect social media to grow more than any other channel. Half of the European marketers Forrester surveyed are already using social media, with another 25% planning to adopt it within the next year.

Social media is being used across the board more for brand building rather than lead generation. Twitter is seen as the most important social media channel for all marketers, Facebook is seen as the best platform for brand building by B2C marketers and LinkedIn is the dominant channel for B2B marketers. The study shows that marketers are confident in their use of social media - especially if they use social networks in their personal lives as well as professionally.

The emergence of mobile
The growth rate for social has almost matched mobile, with one third of organisations now using mobile. But mobile only accounts for an average of 3.3% of average marketing budgets, compared with 8.6% dedicated toward social media channels.

While one quarter of marketers are not planning to adopt mobile, the average expenditure in mobile by users is growing at a rapid pace, making it a critical channel for marketers. With the ubiquity in smartphones and the rapid rise in mobile web marketing techniques such as QR codes, the mobile share of budget is likely to increase over the next few years.

The skills gap
Despite the rise in uptake of digital channels, the biggest challenge facing UK marketers at present is how to close the digital skills gap. While more marketers are investing in digital channels, few feel confident that they have the right skills to effectively implement and manage those channels, as well as demonstrate their return on investment.

The biggest disparity is around social media and mobile, with few marketers feeling that they have the skills required. Only one in six organisations, for example, consider their social competence to be excellent and almost one in five say their social media competence is negative. Additionally, websites have the highest rating for importance but the largest gap in competence.

Technology is now an essential dimension of marketing especially in key areas such as web analytics, customer analytics, campaign management and personalisation. But, generally speaking, most marketers are still technology laggards that are not pushing the IT agenda to support and implement new marketing models.

The potential to use tools such as social media analytics and real-time pricing and forecasting - powered by high performance analytics - to make sense of 'big data' is massive for marketers, but few are willing to engage with technology teams to put these tools in action. The technical dimensions of marketing, particularly those dealing with data or technology, are still a challenge for marketers.

Despite marketers now needing IT to support them in enabling the use of various digital channels, marketers still appear to have the fear factor when it comes to technology. Marketers recognise the importance of unifying customer data, processing big data volumes and mapping out a path for new technology. But the fact that these aspects are usually handled by back office functions such as data management and IT, is keeping them further down the marketing agenda.

Mobile competence is a concern for 16% of marketers. Social media skills are rated more important than search - remarkable given the important role that search engines have as the starting point in the customer journey.

Measurement is a challenge
Marketers not only have to contend with a raft of new channels but also an enhanced set of success factors. While marketers agree that executing campaigns efficiently and measuring their effectiveness are the most important success factors, the research reveals that almost none are successful.

There is a gap between the importance of critical success factors and the ability to deliver against them, meaning that the new marketing model is running ahead of capabilities. The inability to measure the impact of these emerging digital channels, particularly social media and mobile, is a key issue for UK marketers.

The research shows that there is a real risk that marketing is being executed without substantial evidence for its payback. Key performance indicators (KPIs), especially relating to what matters most to the business such as return on investment, personalised communications and accurate data management, will be central to the accurate measurement of digital channels.

The future is still bright
Marketers are largely optimistic with nearly half (46%) expecting higher budgets next year, with social media likely to see the biggest gain and press advertising set to lose the biggest share of the pie. Interestingly a third of companies (33%) have increased their marketing spend while almost another third (29%) have had to make cuts. At the same time, expenditure on technology to underpin marketing is at a standstill.

The role of IT in supporting marketing is continuing to evolve as technology becomes fundamental to the management and delivery of marketing. Given the importance of measuring return on investment to the business, marketers should be focusing on working with IT teams to develop the right marketing performance tools to measure the impact of new digital channels.

If UK marketers want to flourish in the new digital world they must start to hone their technical competence and digital and mobile skills, while looking for new ways to demystify their 'big data' to truly measure and demonstrate the impact of their campaigns on the business.