The great customer vanishing act

The great customer vanishing act: what happens when you can’t track them?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Right now, many social brands offer a free ride in exchange for data that they hope will be valuable to their marketers and others.

It’s tempting to see technology as the “big data” white knight that will save the online business model. The problem, as Adam Lehman rightly identifies in this article in Ad Age Digital, is customers themselves are now looking to back out of the deal – using privacy software, regulation and ad blockers to elude information gathering.

Now you see them, now you don’t

If they succeed, then the bankable ‘potential’ that advertisers have been depending on to fund social media will hit a stealth hurdle at speed.

Consumers, or rather their online patterns, could literally disappear overnight. And even if they don’t, the assumption has to be that they could, and probably will, over time.

Which raises a bigger issue. I wonder though whether some of the key underlying assumptions in the social business model have been stress-tested yet. I think there’s a real risk that marketers have overestimated the popularity of their free products and talked themselves into believing that they have more hold over their customers than they actually do. Brands may be building their understanding and their reach, and yes to some that may amount to engagement, but I think it’s a wishful approach to securing long-term affinity.

What technology can give, technology can also, and just as quickly, take away. And when what is taken away is the basis for the funding model, that’s a big issue.

Are digital relationships bankable?

Businesses believe they have built relationships online. I would argue, in many cases, they have provided services online that consumers have gladly helped themselves to. That’s not a relationship. It’s a give-away.

The biggest challenge facing many marketers right now , I believe, is shifting consumers from people who use freely and are tracked (and would be anonymous if they could) to people who commit money and as part of that align themselves with a brand (and openly enjoy the relationship they have built with that brand).

How many of your customers would welcome being tracked by you (with all the trust, engagement, loyalty and mutual benefit that such a move entails)?

The fact that so many brands would have to say “Not many” casts doubt on a fundamental tenet of social media: that social customers are already loyal customers.

The real meaning of Like

Brian Solis summarises the misread very well here. Marketers overvalue the Like button, he says. They see it as a permission statement. A Like is what Solis describes as “an act of fleeting value”. So people who Like are far from being a captive community, an engaged or even a reliable audience. Because they happen in the moment, Likes are instant decisions with no lasting implications. The affinity, interest, alignment, and endorsement is for that action, statement, thought, photo etc – and, I would add, very little beyond that.

Technology may provide patterns and metrics. It may provide a lot of information that marketers can quant. In that sense, it may provide insights. But, as Lehman, rightly points out, given half a chance, consumers will simply take the content and run. There is no loyalty to the brand being generated – there is only affection for what the technology provides.

That’s the dilemma.

Someone has to change that by moving the relationship forward; someone has to turn that momentary favour into a profitable relationship. Someone has to gather and read the human insights behind the numbers and turn them into propositions that people are drawn to. Because doing so is the only way of guaranteeing that potentially untraceable customers will want to identify themselves and/or even continue to engage.

Time for CMOs to step up

I believe CMOs are the people with the skills to lead the conversion of brands people Like into brand communities that people really want to be part of and contribute to. Frankly, no other member of the C-level, with the exception perhaps of some CEOs (see the interview with Peter Aceto below in Other perspectives for an example of a CEO leading social engagement from the front), has the mandate and in many cases the skills. But pulling that off successfully and earning the success that marketers deserve from their C-level compatriots depends on CMOs becoming converters and not just messengers. Yes, they must collaborate much more closely with others than they have. Yes, they have to be able to gather and read the data. Yes, they have to understand the technology. But beyond that, they need to be able to use their human skills to turn abstract participation and interest into converted, measurable profits.

In some ways, the credibility of CMOs is a mirror image of the problems that marketers face with their consumers. Until marketers can attribute returns to what they do, in their social media programmes and beyond, that other leaders can clearly see and quantify, their work will risk being seen as carrying its own “Do not Track”.

More reading

 Other perspectives

  • Great thinking as always from Brian Solis. I love the whole concept of the “egosystem” because it points to the tension and the opportunity. On the one hand, consumers need to feel they have a relevant relationship with your brand. On the other, if you just give them what they want without thinking through the finances, you’ll be popular and broke.  The Rise of Digital Influence, with Brian Solis (
  • This is great interview with a CEO tackling social visibility and consumer relationships. He may not be running a free-to-consumer model, but his points about building relationships that include but extend beyond social platforms are well worth reading. Executive tales from the Twitterverse: How ING Canada’s CEO staked his brand on social media success (
  • Not everyone agrees that social traceability is disappearing. The Next Frontiers in Social Media (

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