Adventure Calls: Customer Acquisition in the Digital Age

Building your customer list in physical retail has traditionally been a methodical process that went through a slow cycle of researching the market, targeting various media to place one-way advertisements, and hoping all the planning and assumptions were going to pay off.

Thankfully, online advertising services like Google Adwords et. al. have refined this process into a slick, easy to administer and quick to turn around process that has brought with it one fundamental improvement; the concept of pay-per-click which, apart from being cost effective, is also very helpful in attributing that elusive RoI. However, while it’s been given a slick coat of paint for the digital age, we’re still really employing a traditional outbound one-way marketing mindset.


Fortunately, for those marketers with a sense of adventure, as consumers’ habits and ways of communicating have evolved, so have the technologies that underpin our commerce tools and this has opened up some interesting new possibilities in how we can engage with and, eventually, acquire our customer.

So let’s don the khakis, slap on the insect repellent, lace up the gore-tex boots and seek out three of the new frontiers in customer acquisition:

Inbound Marketing

Yes, it’s basically an oxymoron.

But the paradigm sometimes also known as content marketing is rapidly becoming the go-to marketing activity for businesses in many different industries and verticals. Put simply, the philosophy behind it is based on the idea of waiting for your customers to come to you, then on building a lasting, trusting relationship with them through creating and serving up (at carefully orchestrated moments) meaningful and relevant content for their consumption.

Better known as a highly effective method for customer retention, as we consider a customer as “acquired” only once they’ve completed a paying transaction with your business, this method is also very effective for winning new business insomuch as it takes the customer’s hand from the moment they reach their first touchpoint with your brand (e.g. your homepage, or a blog article etc…), and leads them carefully, but surely towards that mythical acquisition.

What to look for:

Two of the most important tenets of Inbound Marketing are integrity and authenticity: as you’ll be communicating regularly with your customers through relatively long-form content, you will naturally be establishing a brand voice and a sort of status quo about what you are expecting from your customers (sales) and what they expect from you (knowledge/insights/emotions). The balance of this understanding is built over time and will directly impact your RoI on marketing activities — the bottom line is; don’t be too “salesey”, but don’t give too much “knowledge/insights/emotion” away for free.

The effectiveness of this as a customer acquisition method is based on how well designed your carefully-built “nurturing” campaigns are; this is something that requires constant vigilance, analysis and adjustment. Some vendors now offer Machine Learning tools that keep an unblinking eye on the effectiveness of your campaigns at every touchpoint and can adjust to even the smallest changes in customer behaviour immediately to ensure you’re always converting at the highest rate.

What to look out for:

Committing to an Inbound Marketing strategy is effectively committing to the regular production of quality, customer-relevant content. This significant burden of creative work should not be underestimated and often introduces the need to engage new staff or contractors to carry out roles that didn’t previously exist in your business, in turn introducing operational complexity.

Additionally, as a customer acquisition strategy, Inbound Marketing should be considered a “slow-burner” (at least as compared to the company it keeps in this article) and though, with the right amount of effort, your results should be strong and sustainable, there may be detractors in your business because of the relatively slow uptick in acquisition rates.

Who and How:

There are any number of digital marketing agencies that are prepared to help you get started on building and rolling out an Inbound Marketing strategy, and finding and engaging a good one is definitely a good course of action for any business wanting to ensure they’re up and running quickly.

Alternatively, there are a number of software vendors providing very capable tools centred around the Inbound Marketing paradigm, and as they practice what they preach, they can provide you a wealth of information and instructions (or, content, if you will) about how to get started on the journey.

Influencer Marketing

So you want to do social, but you have no friends? Why not pay for someone who has too many of them to plug your product to their vast legion of loyal followers?

This is the basic principal behind the exploding trend of influencer marketing whereby social media celebrities (who may or may not be “celebrities” in the offline world as well) charge a fee to digitally promote your product through posing with it in an Instagram photo, or tweeting about how fantastic they find it. The types of services on offer run from the modern version of subtle TV Show product placement, through to multiple, cross-channel gushing endorsements of the long term life benefits your product has brought them.

What to look for:

There are numerous advantages to this approach to marketing, principally though, businesses use it to make a splash as it can prove hyper-effective in the short term if the stars align and your product is the right fit for the influencer’s audience.

So, to manipulate the heavens, do extensive research into successful influencer campaigns in your industry and vertical to understand some of the key individuals you might wish to engage, the form of promotion that seems to work the best (image/written word/video, light-touch/gushing etc…) and what kind of seasonal, timing, geographical considerations might need to be taken into account.

What to look out for:

Network effects are great, when they work.

And just as quickly as your sales can shoot up, they can also shoot right back down, or indeed go nowhere at all. The challenge here is that planning and budgeting for the results of such a campaign is nearly impossible (bar a potential periodical, ongoing campaign with a trusted influencer).

While the budgeting for the marketing side of engaging with Influencers is hard, the supply chain and inventory budgeting is a veritable minefield. If you want to be able to capitalise to the maximum extent on your Influencer Marketing (and benefit from any eventual lasting effects), then ensure you’re supply chain is well organised, lubricated and prepared to scale — fast.

Who and How:

If you want to get into the Influencer Marketing game, you’re first port of call is to contact influencer marketing agencies. These are essentially the people with the contacts who can communicate directly with the influencer themselves (or, at the very least, their own agent), and begin negotiations for the promotion of your product. Be aware that this is a game where everyone takes a cut, and access to the “best” influencers commands a very high price that is often non-negotiable.

Machine-Informed Outbound Marketing

While Influencer Marketing might get your wise old granddad to raise his eyebrows, Machine-Informed Outbound Marketing is certain to pass over his head entirely.

Machine Learning is finding its way into basically every domain that is currently touched by computing, and even some that aren’t. On top of the above example in the Inbound Marketing section, these clever little machines can also be used to inform your outbound marketing activities and spend.

The principal is that you provide a learning algorithm with a list of your converted (already acquired) customers, and the algorithm sets about working out how these individuals tick, and what facets of their demographics, geographical distribution, socioeconomic status (etc, etc, etc…) means that they are more likely to buy from you than others. Then, armed with this insight, you use “traditional” digital and even non-digital marketing techniques to, as explicitly as possible, target the same type of people — the assumption being that they are more likely to purchase your product therefore maximise your marketing RoI.

What to look for

Beyond simple analysis of your own customer list, some firms in this space are able to extend this data set with purchased and warehoused information from literally millions of other shoppers (many of which will have never been in contact with your company), further building their algorithm’s effectiveness. These firms may also have the ability to cross-pollinate your customer lists with their other clients (all privacy and competition issues notwithstanding) to similarly effective results.

What to look out for

Not all machine learning algorithms are created equally. The lesson here is to try, at least at a high-level, to wrap your head around how the algorithm arrives at its conclusions, and be critical and inquisitive at all times.

When engaging outside operators to help you in this endeavour, remain open-minded to the idea that a newer, better idea can (and likely will) come along at any time, and beware of operators who appear to be too secretive and don’t help you understand and navigate these murky, shark-infested waters.

Who and how

This is a fairly new, but fast growing form of marketing, with brand new operators springing up all the time, and existing marketing agencies trying their hand as well. However, like with SEO, to be good at this form of marketing, you first need to be very technical and good with large data sets — so be sure to look out for people with scientific-sounding degrees and developer experience, rather than the typical marketer.

I’ll take all of the above, please.

If you’ve got this far, you’ll notice that these three new marketing paradigms are in fact all quite different. They each fulfil a very different kind of marketing need through a very different means and activity type, and hence help grow your business in significantly different ways.

The takeaway is of course — as it always is with marketing — to not focus on one single thing but to practice everything in moderation; adjusting your deployment of resources in response to the behaviour of your customers. This approach will allow you to build whatever type of business and relationship with your newly acquired customers you wish.

So what other kinds of pioneering marketing techniques have you come across on the digital frontier? Where has your sense of adventure taken you? Let’s get a discussion going in the comments!