Full disclosure: For the past 6 weeks, I was interviewing for a Product Marketing role on the AWS AI/ML team, and received a decline: “not a fit for the role” response today. Yes, I received a rejection on Prime Day! While this role didn’t work out, I still appreciated the opportunity to have been considered for the team, and am open to future roles at Amazon that are a better fit for my background and customer-centric marketing ethos.
As a marketer, I built a career reputation on helping some of the world’s most-recognized brands build customer-centric digital experiences — driving the core idea that artificial intelligence and machine learning (“AI/ML”) would pave the future towards more humanized, authentic relationships between brands and their consumers. Over the past several years, whenever I discussed the successful applications of AI/ML, I constantly brought up Amazon as the shining example every global brand should aspire to:
One of the most successful CEOs in the world once said, “People who are right most of the time are people who change their minds often.”
After today’s Prime Day campaign, I’ve changed my mind. It is clearer now, more than ever, that Amazon is a Prime example of a powerful technology company collecting immense amounts of customer data, and has no clue how to use it to their advantage.
I’ve been an Amazon customer for nearly 16 years. It is no secret I’ve been increasingly unhappy with Amazon’s customer marketing experience, specifically its email campaigns. As Ana Milicevic, Principal at Sparrow Digital, remarks, “[for] both consumers and marketers, there is a level of expectation that these email experiences are tailored and somewhat unique to us — or at least the segment we fit into.” Coupled with Amazon’s corporate mission “to be the world’s most customer-centric company”, why were these emails then constantly missing the mark?
My public tweets expressing disdain for Amazon’s marketing spans years. And while I have been satisfied with its customer support team — A+ team by the way — it’s the product recommendations and lack of personalization within the emails that really digs into my skin.
For example, I want to know which data points I’m generating that would yield the recommendation to buy “7 LBS Premium Pure & Safe Silica Gel”? What did I do? Can someone at Amazon please tell me which browsing behaviors on the site I need to stop to receive relevant product recommendations?
Imagine being in a relationship for 16 years. And your significant other still doesn’t know what you like. Imagine being with someone who has no idea what your taste preferences are, and doesn’t even make an effort to learn. They’re not thoughtful. They don’t say anything meaningful. What primarily keeps them around is the comfort of knowing they deliver basic needs well. This is the relationship I have with Amazon.
Who is responsible for these emails?
While Amazon’s business grew exponentially — whether successfully adding new product categories, venturing into a new business vertical or the acquisition of a new company — it seemed as if growth came at the expense of its core customer nurturing tool. To be frank, the emails are garbage. It’s not clear if there is any one team or leader who has ownership of customer email marketing.
My initial observation, based on conversations with friends working at Amazon and through various Twitter threads, was that there wasn’t a marketing team that audited messaging at a global level across all business units — or at least not consistently. Perhaps, I thought, each Amazon team was responsible for their own email marketing — which is why emails from different Amazon businesses weren’t the same. For example, Whole Foods’ email strategy is head and shoulders above the other teams, delivering campaigns with incentivized messaging and offers that coincide with the standard US retail calendar.
Whatever the case, however, I found it bizarre that Amazon’s marketing leaders did not insist on higher standards for email within their core retail business.
Based on today’s Prime Day campaign, here’s my professional marketing teardown:
I received this email yesterday (July 14, 2019): “Prime Day Starts Tomorrow”
- Thanks for sending me an email reminder a day in advance!
- Prime movies featured were ones I’ve watched before
- I wasn’t sure if the “Guide” was just an email header image or not?
- Where’s the Call-To-Action?
- The Prime movies featured in the email were movies I watched already — I didn’t click on them since it felt irrelevant to Prime Day. Is it a Prime Day deal if I already consumed it?
Hey Alexa! Personalization without campaign context is irrelevant, and a bad customer experience.
I received this email today (July 15, 2019): “Ranee Soundara: Prime Day Deals Are Here!”
- Thanks for recognizing my full name!
- The subject line maybe? I opened, right…
- In American culture, calling out someone’s full name is implying they are in trouble.
- In the past year, I’ve only bought Echo devices and baby products as gifts, explicitly listed on gift registries. Why would I buy these for myself? I surely would have done so already…
Hey Alexa! Customer Obsession is about knowing the customer’s preferences.
Below the fold, the Prime Day recommendations became more irrelevant.
So far, none of the products shown were based on my behavioral data or any browsing I could recall.
- I wasn’t on the market for a new digital watch or wearable
- I never searched for vacuums, or at least I don’t think I did
- I’m not sure I searched for a new laptop or desktop computer in the past 6 months, certainly not for gaming purposes (I don’t game)
- I probably shopped for luggage, I can’t quite recall that either
Alexa, Earning Trust of the customer means you take a Deep Dive into genuinely learning about them
Below is a table listing data points Amazon’s AI/ML-powered customer data platform should know about me from 16 years of data history. I also suggest corresponding data-informed marketing actions, based on my professional experiences and opinions:
Lastly, the Prime Day desktop web experience left me wondering who, exactly, would claim ownership over a campaign experience entirely lacking in any sort of customer-driven decision making. The homepage or campaign landing page should have been the hero, highlighting personalized deals and offers relevant to the customer. Instead, the only level of relevant personalization was literally within the top navigation bar.
Congratulations Alexa, you know my name and where to deliver my orders to!
I was shown no products based on my recent browsing or purchase history. I was shown no product pricing, deals or savings relevant to me, above or below the fold. I don’t need bed sheets, Alexa. But hey, maybe I’m not Prime Day’s target audience. So what do I know?
Ultimately, Amazon is a business. I get it. And if a team leader or category manager is in a situation in which they are tasked with pushing X$MM in product (sales revenue), implementing a blanket email marketing campaign to the entire customer base without personalization, at the cost of annoying the customer, makes sense. Pushing inventory to the entire customer base, and successfully converting merely a sliver of the audience, can be a considerable business. This is especially true if the propensity for a customer to leave Amazon completely because of a bad email/UX is extremely low. It comes down to making a judgment call, between finding the threshold of selling products customers want and irritating the customer. I am certain this is why Amazon marketing experiences for customers have remained unchanged.
But Alexa, if you think big, and look at the full picture, you’ll realize you’re leaving money on the table!
“[Amazon’s] ubiquitous strategy is a stark contrast to their Leadership Principles. It erodes brand equity over time,” remarks Cali Pitchel-Schmidt, VP Strategies & Insights at Porter Novelli. Pitchel-Schmidt continues, “How much share of wallet is going to other [direct-to-consumer] brands who are expertly marketing [now that] 2-day shipping is no longer a differentiator?”
I agree 100%. While Amazon set the industry bar high for expedited online shipping, today, free or low-cost 2-day shipping is near table stakes for every commerce player. Now what?
Hey Alexa! Irrelevance compounded over time leads to diminished customer loyalty.
As a PR campaign, Prime Day is brilliant. And I’m sure it was a wildly successful Amazon campaign for several reasons:
- overall consumer mindshare
- owning retail in July
- pushing remnant inventory
- driving major sales revenues vs competitors
Earlier tonight, I took to Twitter for some real-talk:
Essentially, the Prime Day deals didn’t speak to me. My 16 years’ worth of customer data was ignored. I was left out.
Why does this all matter? And why am I writing about this?
Interviewing at Amazon for the past six weeks has been eye-opening. I spent countless hours deep diving into Amazon’s Leadership Principles, pulling details out of my own career experiences that I felt best represented their core culture.
When I juxtaposed the Leadership Principles against my Amazon customer experience, it became blatantly apparent that somewhere along the company’s road to growth, email diverged, causing product discovery and customer experience to follow suit. Where, I wondered, was this famed customer obsession?
I wasn’t feeling it at all. NOT AT ALL 😒
Customer obsession begins with customer empathy. Understanding customers as humans first: their needs, wants, ticks, emotions and motivations. And it isn’t about knowing every single little thing, but knowing just enough detail to create a truly special, unique customer marketing experience every time they visit.
Last month, AWS launched Amazon Personalize, an AI/ML service that enables developers to deliver personalized recommendations to users within their applications, similar to Amazon’s own recommendation engine.
If my Prime Day campaign experience is an example of the end-user experience of Amazon’s recommendation engine productized into an AI/ML service, it begs this larger question:
If technology companies like Amazon, holding treasure troves of customer data, still can’t deliver customer empathy in their own marketing, does Amazon Personalize truly have the AI/ML capability to handle personalization for other businesses?
Sixteen years is the longest relationship I ever had, besides my parents. Amazon has been a commitment, and I’m not ready to let go. Despite everything, I will remain a customer. The pros outweigh the cons:
- Prime Video — Originals content is higher in quality versus competitive streaming networks
- One-click Purchase — From product discovery to payment, purchasing items I already have the intent to buy is super simple for both mobile and web UX.
- Fast shipping
- Easy returns
Perhaps this is me, disagreeing, yet still committing as a customer 🤷🏻♀️