What sets apart today's most progressive marketing agencies

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Tom Gerace, Skyword
Tom Gerace, Skyword

Thanks to seismic shifts in technology, the past decade has been transformative for just about every market and industry worldwide, chief among them marketing and advertising. Today's ever-changing, digital world has altered the ways in which we communicate, including the ways we buy and sell. Consumers are community builders. They're brand influencers. And at long last, marketers have the channels they need to execute targeted creative to share ideas and connect with consumers in ways many only imagined before.

During any technological revolution, ideas are born, they evolve, most die, and a handful triumph at an incredible rate. In the midst of this one, marketers must navigate a complex ecosystem of social networks, blogs, search engines, Big Data, and mobile devices, not to mention “traditional” digital marketing methods like targeted advertising and email. Consumers are in the driver's seat, choosing when and where to interact with brands and often rejecting traditional, interruptive marketing methods. As marketers, many of us are working with agencies to guide us through the shifting landscape. The best-equipped agencies will use an integrated marketing approach that incorporates sophisticated audience intelligence, leverages a core content layer based on customer needs, and employs actionable analytics to understand what resonates with customers and prospects so we can engage increasingly successfully with them over time.

Understanding the consumer

To succeed in a world where customers are in control, marketers must understand and anticipate their needs like never before. Google's ZMOT research demonstrates that a consumer's shopping journey begins long before they arrive at a commerce site. Nearly half of all online shoppers use search engines to inform their purchasing decisions. Eighty percent of shoppers will conduct some form of online research before buying products or services. Bottom line, many decisions are made long before a consumer makes its way to a brand's website.

Sellers must now understand not just who our customers are, but also what information they need to inform their shopping process. This begins long before they start to select what brand or item to buy. It starts when they have a need or a problem and go looking for a solution. You begin shopping for a new dishwasher when you break your old one (trust me). You start dreaming of your winter vacation when you see a brutal storm coming. The retailer that provides repair information for dishwashers and the travel seller that becomes a terrific source for weather information is seen not just as a purveyor of goods, but also as a trusted advisor. And agencies that can help brands provide the content that their customers and prospects need to guide their buying journeys will thrive in this new digital world.

Strategy vs. vehicle driven

For a decade, marketers have allowed their marketing vehicles to drive their content plans. We launched email marketing and created email content. We launched newsletter marketing and needed newsletter content. We launched banner advertising and needed landing page or microsite content. This exercise went on and on, for SEO, SEM landing pages, social marketing, and mobile. The net effect is that we created a lot of content for a lot of reasons, without understanding and responding to our customers' information needs.

Progressive agencies are teaching their clients that successful digital marketing begins with business strategy--answering questions such as who are our clients, what are their information needs, and which of those needs can we address best? That plan drives their content strategy, comprising topics to be addressed, trustworthy sources for that content, and a plan to optimize the  content for success in search and social. And then, when we know what our customers want or need to know, we consider all of the consumer touch points and organize our inbound and outbound marketing tactics around them. A solid content marketing strategy will speak to the specific needs of buyers, no matter where they are in the sales cycle.

Brands understand the power of generating content to connect and engage with current and prospective customers. But the challenge remains: how to make all the necessary components come together in a holistic, successful way--from understanding changing consumer interests to finding the content creators to address those interests.

An integrated approach

Gartner predicts that by 2015 "digital strategies, such as social and mobile marketing, will influence at least 80% of consumers' discretionary spending." But which marketing vehicles will work and which will fail? Not surprisingly, 80% of CMOs think integrated services will increase in importance over the next five years, according to a study by The Horn Group and Kelton Research--yet 60% said they were unable to find an integrated firm to meet those needs.

Once solely focused on advertising, agencies are adapting to a fully integrated marketing model, understanding that new consumer behaviors and advances in technology have created an entirely new playing field. In this environment, only tech-savvy, versatile, and forward-thinking agencies will survive. The leading agencies of today, and tomorrow, are effectively and efficiently addressing brands' growing need for integrated marketing services. They also understand that this represents an enormous opportunity to help their brand clients reach consumers in a more intimate way--delivering authentic ideas and information, how and when their consumers want and need it.

Digital measurement: No square pegs in round holes here

Additionally, progressive agencies are focusing on a greater use of analytics to optimize communications, with nearly 40% of marketers naming this a top five priority for this year, according to a recent Return Path report conducted by The Relevancy Group.

Digital marketers have access to a treasure trove of data. The challenge is making that data actionable, quickly. Today's top digital agency collects information from their brand clients from a variety of sources; they assemble that data into a dashboard that helps their clients make sense of it. And they use that information to drive strategic and tactical change to their business and content strategies. This data helps uncover new questions customers have, allowing brands to craft compelling stories that will resonate with those customers and marketing strategies that will move them to action. Critical to success is following a framework to ensure that the right business goals are set, that metrics are set for each objective, and that each channel is measured.

The leading agencies of tomorrow will continue to embrace change, experimenting with new methods of reaching the consumer, measuring each, ruthlessly cutting those that don't succeed, and doubling down on those that do. And despite a shifting landscape of marketing vehicles, they will remain true to the concepts of identifying who their clients' customers are, understanding their information needs, and delivering content that differentiates by entertaining their customers, informing them, or solving their problems. By keeping content strategy at the core of digital marketing, the agency-of-tomorrow will enable its brand clients to build lasting connections with consumers they serve and reach.

Tom Gerace is founder and CEO of Skyword.

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