A New Age in Marketing with Microsoft

Ashish Singru

Microsoft’s Ashish Singru knows a status quo marketing strategy is no longer effective. Evolved brands, which are effectively forging relationships with consumers, as well as creating relevant engaging messages and unique customer experiences, are abandoning the traditional broadcast model and are now dominating the Web 2.0 terrain. Learning about individual consumer behavior and leveraging this information to create targeted campaigns is how the best marketers are making their messages resonate. Singru, the Senior Manager of Global Marcom Insights & Analytics, discusses traditional and digital marketing strategy across the range of Microsoft products.

How did you come into your current role in Global Marcom Insights & Analytics?

The theme of my career of 13 years of professional experience has been custom-centric and data-driven marketing. My early years were focused on using analysis of customer feedback to help service-oriented companies identify and improve customer service issues, as well as evaluate key drivers of customer loyalty. I also looked at the role played by advertising and pricing on customer loyalty. Subsequently, I worked for several years at an advertising agency, getting involved in design, implementation and evaluation/testing of customer relationship programs with clients. That helped me get closer to the action and understand how customer relationships are actually built. About mid-way through my career, I got really attracted to the role played by advertising and other communications in building brands and revenues. Given my deep passion for applying sophisticated data analysis to marketing challenges, I spent time in a consumer goods environment on the client side, doing Marketing Effectiveness ROI Modeling as well as Pricing Modeling.

When I came to Microsoft four years ago, I was able to pull these experiences together to help marketers with their communications planning from start to end—from the point that communication strategy is developed, to developing creative and testing the strategy and evaluating effectiveness of the marketing spend in-market. I have been fortunate to do this work on an international scale, and it has helped me understand how a large company needs systematic analysis of customer data so as to address customer engagement in different markets. In my current role, I work closely with marketers and agency professionals on understanding how the customer journey with a brand plays out—and the role marketing communications—which can include any communication form that can be used to touch a customer—whether it is advertising or events marketing—plays in it.

What are your thoughts on Web 2.0, and how has Web 2.0 changed the way products are marketed?

Web 2.0 has been an exciting evolution for the marketing community. It provides both a great opportunity and a challenge.

Let me talk initially about the challenge. Marketers have less control over their message. Consumers and customers are getting involved in becoming messengers for a brand—for better or worse. Also, marketers have less control over how to define the customer experience—whether on a Web site or in retail or on the telephone. Customers who have been through an experience are telling others about it and influencing their perceptions before they actually experience it. So basically it is forcing marketers to do more homework before putting things in the market. The key for marketers is to not let this challenge discourage them from trying innovative ideas to build customer relationships.

On the opportunity side, it is a great blessing. First of all, in the past, companies were primarily dependent on conducting surveys and focus groups to understand how customers behave. Web 2.0 strategy offers them an additional window to companies to hear what customers are saying "in their own words." The key here is to be open to hear what customers are telling you and using the information to refine your strategies. Web 2.0 lets you hear it "as it is" from both your best customers and worst customers—and there is value in hearing both sides closely. Second advantage of a Web 2.0 strategy is that it lets customers make your relationship-building more credible—if you go out there soliciting loyalty from a prospective, it may be seen as a sales-pitch, but if a happy customer endorses you, it carries lot of objective weight from the viewpoint of a shopper.

So I think Web 2.0 is overall a good friend of companies that are trying to build long-term engagement with customers—as long as you are open to use it constructively as part of your marketing strategy.

Microsoft has such a wide range of products—both consumer and commercial. With such a range, how can customer insights and analytics be used to decide how to use traditional and digital marketing and media for campaigns across different brands?

This is a topic on which I have been working heavily for last several years—both for Microsoft strategy and other companies. Essentially, what I find is that the key insight a marketer needs on this question is to understand the journey their customer takes from the initial state where they are completely unaware of the brand to becoming a user of the brand and then to loyalty. And I find that often marketers have an understanding of only small sections of this journey—not the whole journey. For example, a retail marketing person might have a good idea of how to convert someone in the store into a purchaser and repeat buyer but may not know what gets them into the store.

Using customer research for strategy—and there are many tools and consultants now in the industry that do this, marketers can understand the purchase process or decision-making process. Next they need to understand how they can influence the process—whether by putting out an ad, or putting great content on their Web site, or putting great service staff in the store or after-sales support—so that the customer enjoys the journey and wants to repeat it again in the future.

Customer data analytics can play a very important role in this process. Companies are constantly touching the customer in the market and the customer is responding back. For example, a company might put a commercial on TV and give a Web site address or phone number to call for customers. And maybe one out of every 100 customers who sees the ad calls or goes to the Web site. Every day, every minute, such data is being collected across a variety of touch-points. Companies can (and most large ones are) mining it and using statistical techniques to understand what drives customers in terms of dialog and journey with a company or brand.

By analyzing the customer journey and the role of the marketing strategy—whether traditional or digital—play in it, you can understand better the role of traditional and digital approaches in influencing the journey. At one stage, traditional strategy may be more relevant; at others, digital strategy is better; in some stages, either one may work just fine.

So my advice would be that marketers don’t think that certain tactics work best with certain kinds of business without understanding the customer journey. And you may find that your customers will really appreciate your relationship building based on an understanding of their journey.

Which metrics are currently interesting you?

To answer this question, I will pick up from where I left in the last one! Basically, I choose metrics that are most relevant to what I am trying to do as a marketer. As a marketer, your customers are in different stages of the journey. And you need metrics that help you understand the health of your whole customer pipeline. For instance, if you are a new brand, your first metric for brand strategy includes brand awareness and ad awareness. If you are mature and have a strong competition, you want to track the gap between you and your competition on share of mind, share of wallet, satisfaction rating, number of leads and conversions. If you are a dominant brand, you want to know how you are constantly improving and solidifying your position—market share, customer satisfaction.

There is metrics-palooza these days—digital marketing as well as database marketing has made such a large number of metrics readily available. The key is to find the key performance indicators—hopefully in single digits—that are best indicators of where your business is headed in future. After all, just knowing past performance is not enough—you can’t undo it—you need metrics that can help you course-correct or think about what you are go to improve customer relationships in the future.

It seems that as online attitudes and behaviors change, marketing relevance, consumer interaction and relationships are the most important factors. Is this true? Why or why not?

Absolutely true. As consumers are increasingly online, that is the key battleground where companies are fighting to get share of mind and wallet and starting the loyalty bond. So it is very important for a company to closely monitor how their customer’s online attitudes and behaviors are changing. In fact, changes in online attitudes and behaviors also affect how customers view offline marketing as well, so that definitely needs to be watched.

Secondly is the speed issue with your marketing strategy—interactions and relationship-building are much faster online than offline-again both in a good way and a bad way. So a company that is in tune with its customers can quickly build, repair and sustain relationships with customers via online channels. Those who are not in tune will struggle and lose market share.

Even as budgets tighten, consumers expect more value. What is the role of the modern marketer in the goal of increasing loyalty and retention?

I think Value has several components that marketers can influence. Of course, marketers don’t make products (engineers and designers do), so they can’t directly increase product quality from a value point of view. But they can do other things—they can make sure the voice of customer (VOC) is heard in the company and products that are brought to market are designed to maximize the customers’ value for money—not just bells and whistles. Secondly, they can help make the customer journey more cost-effective for the customer—initially by giving them relevant information in the right place at the right time; and then when they are ready to purchase, give them a great shopping experience, pricing options, etc. that convince them that there is value in working with a company. You don’t want a situation that a customer walked away because the actual product and experience quality was not communicated effectively, and a competitor with a worse product was seen as a better value. That would really hurt your loyalty and retention strategy.

What are your predictions for traditional and digital marketing strategy?

I have been tracking media trends for a variety of products and audiences for the last few years. It has been an exciting period—with the ebb and flow of new media, as well as trends in one direction or other on many traditional media. All indications are that the role of traditional media as marketing outlets is changing over time—this does not mean that they are vanishing, but they are going to be used differently. For example, there is constant talk of what will happen to the 30-second TV ad. And already you are seeing a lot of companies experiment, often successfully, with new ways to use the TV medium—longer infotainment-type ad videos, product placements, etc. That evolution should continue. Also, as TV and Internet device start coming together, there is a whole new set of possibilities on using TV shows to place a message in a more targeted fashion. Print medium is clearly struggling from an economic viewpoint, but it will stay relevant for many years. Digital media is going through an exciting period—both display/video advertising and search advertising have grown up—and companies have to figure out how they can best use each for their specific needs. Web 2.0—I talked about it earlier—is a great source of consumer voice in the media.

The one medium I think might be interesting to watch in 2009 and next few years is mobile phone-based marketing strategy. Countries outside the United States have been using it heavily. Now, with strong competition in the mobile sector in the United States, there is a lot of new technology like 3G, and great user interfaces—and the increasing bandwidth and speed. All these things can really be attractive for marketers to use mobile a lot more as a medium for building relationships with their audiences—but again as I keep saying, marketers will need to think if this fits into their customers’ logical journey. If not, it may lead to lot of annoyed and unhappy customers who may disengage from the relationship!

Interview by Blake Landau, editor