Last week I was talking to a colleague who travelled to Salt Lake City for the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit. He was telling me about this “pay-as-you-go” music service he really liked. His initial free minutes ran out just that morning. What we focused on was that when this happened, it just happened. There was no reminder about subscribing to the service or an email asking him to sign up. There was nothing.

Recently, I’ve been traveling to NYC multiple times a month, and I’ve been staying at a small hotel chain local to the city. I’ve always liked one of their 10 hotels better than the others. I, in fact, worked for the parent company 12 years ago and helped run marketing campaigns targeting people who fit the “present me”. So it was easy to pick a place to stay the three or four days every other week I found myself in NYC. Early on in my travels to the city I expected to receive something inviting me to bring my family to the city and stay the weekend. After all, if you are in hospitality in NYC a source of your incremental revenue comes from business people extending their stay…but nothing ever came. I received no email communication, even though I was insistent on leaving my email address. No other direct marketing ever showed up at my home. Like my friend, I was disappointed.

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As we chatted about this phenomenon, we were amazed that when we actually wanted to be marketed to, nothing happened. It’s a strange disappointment in and of itself, and also a strange disappointment for us to be talking about this at a digital marketing conference. At Adobe, we spend a lot of time working with customers who want to target messages. They want to get the right message to the right people. Different organizations are concerned about all the things that go along with not giving customers that “creepy feeling”, but in the end there are small windows of opportunity everywhere.

This at the heart is the “big data” problem. There are mountains of data and making any sense of it seems overwhelming. Customers often focus on the gaps. We spend hours talking about details without ever acting on a campaign or idea because it won’t be bulletproof. Suppose my favorite hotel just looked at my uptick in bookings and saw that I’ve stayed many times in past years and shot me an email about extending my next stay. It may take a few guesses to assume that I was in town on business, but there are some clues: My business email address, my corporate card, or just an inquisitive front office clerk who could help piece together the right message and right time.

Piecing the data together and making it actionable can make for huge opportunities. In the end, customers want marketing. They want you to remember that they booked at this hotel before, or purchased from this site before, or if they are reading their favorite online blog that they have a particular interest in other products and service that are contextually relevant. Using data to understand things about me isn’t terribly difficult. To understand things about people who are like me is more difficult, but making all of that something that is actionable in real time can seem overwhelming. But accepting that something close to perfect is better than nothing at all is a key first step towards success.

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