Marketers, Publishers, Agencies: It’s Time to Truly be Customer-First

by | Apr 13, 2023

If there is a universal claim in advertising and marketing, it’s this: We put customers first. You will be hard-pressed to find a company that doesn’t say it — and none would claim the opposite. I don’t question the sincerity of the claim, but sometimes I wonder if some in the industry have lost sight of what it really means.

I know that as a customer and media consumer, I don’t always feel my needs are being prioritized. Not when I see the same ads over and over. Not when websites and news apps disrupt my reading experience by loading and reloading ad and video units, bouncing the content all over the screen. Not when simply getting to the article I want to read is an epic endurance test.

Some people in the industry may object. “Look at all the time and money spent on consumer research,” they’ll say. “Layer in targeting and we’re bringing to consumers exactly what they need.”

Recently I heard someone in media suggest that reducing ad load demonstrated a customer-centric approach because viewers are now seeing fewer commercials. Fair point. A step forward? Not if the ads they’re seeing are disruptive to the viewing experience.

Let’s face it: The real issue here is empathy. Though Apple’s Steve Jobs famously eschewed market research, he still managed to create products that delighted customers and made their lives more productive and enjoyable.

How? He was intuitive, for sure. But he also developed products that delighted him and made his life more productive and enjoyable. He did unto the marketplace what he would have the marketplace do unto him.

In his view, that was empathy, and putting the customer first requires that. That should be evident in every aspect of the user experience.

Too often, we fail to think like consumers. We should be thinking: Would I like this? Would I tolerate this? Sometimes I wonder how many of us even use the products we sell.

In the past, brands and media companies could get away with ignoring customer experiences to some degree. But, increasingly, consumers are gaining more power. They can block ads on the web and on mobile devices, or skip ads on video platforms and podcasts. They eschew ads altogether by consuming content only on ad-free platforms through subscriptions. They expect and demand direct communication with brands and, most importantly, they have the social platforms to be vocal if they are annoyed or disrespected.

Customer-first technology?

How has the industry responded?

Technology has corrected for the problem of too much consumer control with nonskippable ad content. That bolsters the metrics, sure, but is it an empathetic, customer-first move? And even if consumers have more control over privacy and data-sharing now, those changes are more the result of public-policy changes than marketplace empathy.

Clearly, technology and the advertising/messaging it delivers can be invasive. Or it can be relevant and respectful. It’s a choice.

Location tracking is an example: At its worst, it is the cringey digital spy that public-policy makers want to rein in.

At its best, the consumer controls the level and purpose of participation. Many people are OK with sharing their location in return for a more relevant experience, including targeted ads that match the consumer’s interests and immediate circumstances. I’m willing to share my location if the value I receive in exchange enhances my consumer experience. 

I’m constantly reminding my team, “We need to deliver clients what they need, not what we want to sell them.” If we focus on the KPIs that clients need to hit, then our solid performance will win us their loyalty and return business.

The same should apply to customers. The more we think like real consumers, the more empathetic we become — and the better we are at addressing people’s real pain points. Case in point: I was recently on a Delta flight from LAX to JFK. The tailwinds moving us from west to east got us into JFK earlier than planned, which, at first, was quite exciting for the flight crew and passengers. But frequent fliers know that an early arrival means sitting on the runway until the gate assigned to our flight is open.

During this flight, we landed and then waited (and waited and waited) on the runway for two-plus hours, way past our scheduled arrival time. It was frustrating and inconvenient – and Delta knew that. From the time I exited the plane to the moment I settled into an Uber for the drive home – 20 minutes tops – Delta had sent a personalized email, apologizing for the JFK runway traffic jam and thanking passengers for their patience by adding 7,500 frequent flier points.

That was empathetic customer service at its very best. It got my attention and it shifted my mindset from a negative experience to a positive one.

Think about it. When our products and services make people’s lives better, on their terms, in ways that respect their time and attention, that’s when our “customer first” claims will stand up to scrutiny.

Why don’t we all aim for that?

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