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How data can be the key to success as Covid-19 speeds up digital transformation

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/alexskopje)

The Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era for the digital revolution. As lockdown measures confined shoppers to their homes and forced businesses to close their physical premises, consumers became more dependent on digital channels, with goods and services being bought and sold online at unprecedented levels.

Lockdown measures have since eased, as British businesses were permitted to open non-essential stores from 15th June. However, the shifts in behavior triggered by the pandemic will remain; a new wave of consumers have now bought groceries online for the first time, or set up online banking, and they are unlikely to return fully to their old routines. Meanwhile, for those businesses that were already on a journey to being digital-first, the pandemic has accelerated this change dramatically.

This means that a strong digital presence is more important than ever, and many businesses are having to adapt quickly to this reality, in many cases in the face of reduced budgets and even staff cuts. Fortunately, improving online presence doesn’t necessarily require more budget or people; but what it does require is a better understanding of the customer.

Luckily, there is a resource increasingly available to businesses that can help them make strides here; the rapid increase in digital touchpoints with the customer is creating a deluge of data. If capitalized upon, first-party customer data can be the route to outstanding marketing campaigns and superior product decisions, even on a tight budget. Here’s how.

Non-technical users must have the keys to the data they need

Data is only as useful as the insights gleaned from it. Traditionally, to access these insights, businesses needed significant technical resources, and the coders and programmers held all the cards. As a result, non-technical users in marketing and product teams were often excluded from the benefits.

This is no longer the case. In recent years, the number of technology solutions available to help non-technical users get direct access to, and control over, data has exploded. Scott Brinker’s widely-cited annual count of marketing technology tools has progressed from 150 globally in 2011, to more than 8,000 in 2020.

This means that today, there is no shortage of tools to help non-technical users work with data. However, with so many options to choose from and with budgets probably tight due to Covid-19, businesses need to approach building their data stack in the right way.

A solid foundation to the stack is everything. Having to manually compile and integrate data will eat up valuable time and resources; instead, a customer data platform can help establish a single source of truth. Collating insights from different tools to get to something meaningful and effective can get very confusing if that base isn’t there.

How to get started with customer data - and where it can take you

There are a few key things that businesses must tick off to ensure their view of the data is  crystal clear. They should start by thinking about data collection: they must ensure that, as much as possible, they are capturing data from wherever users interact with their brand. Compliance with GDPR and all relevant regulations is essential, but otherwise no stone should go unturned. Collection needs to include the company app or website, but also, your advertising channels or your email systems. Missing out on part of that picture could mean your business fails to achieve that full view of the customer.

Next, bring these diverse strands of data together to create a unified view of each customer. Only when you have clean, unified data, should you send it to the marketing and analytics tools that can help you make it useful.

If businesses have a solid foundation in place for their data, they can then begin achieving more for less. For example:

Data can help marketers identify recent purchasers and remove them from their digital campaigns. It’s not helpful to spend limited resources on promoting a product to someone who has just finished purchasing, especially when budgets are tight. Not including these customers in digital campaigns will help cut costs and focus marketing spend on groups that haven’t yet converted.

Insights based on data can help businesses understand the key characteristics of their highest value customers. Then, they can use this to create lookalike audiences composed of potential customers with similar characteristics, and create personalized advertising campaigns targeted towards these audiences.

Using data can help businesses make more informed attribution decisions. It will mean they can more quickly and easily understand which tactics are working best, so they can make a potentially reduced budget work harder, and concentrate spending on where it is having the most impact.

Product teams need to know exactly how customers are using their products to inform their decision-making. Insights based on data can fuel superior understanding and smarter decisions. The best product teams are able to experiment quickly; working with customer data can help them continually test news ideas and help them know when to stick or twist.

If you have the right data foundations in place, it won’t just be the marketing and product teams that will benefit. Engineering teams at businesses of all sizes are often constrained by having to handle data requests from their non-technical colleagues, when they should be able to prioritize building new products and features. Using a customer data platform as that base for customer data can help reduce engineering costs significantly, with the engineers themselves then free to focus on activities that add greater value.

Emerging strongly from the downturn

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant businesses are being confronted with the challenge of achieving the same impact but with less budget. But by taking advantage of first-party customer data, businesses can give themselves a leg-up on the competition, especially at this time when the opportunity is there to reach bigger audiences online, as physical retail dwindles by comparison.

While Covid-19 is presenting enormous challenges, if businesses can use this moment to revitalize how they are using data and boost their understanding of their customers, they can improve their online presence and reap significant rewards. However, it’s vital that businesses don’t exclude any team from the benefits. Access to good quality data needs to be consistent across product, marketing and engineering if your organization is to see its true impact.

Calvin French-Owen, CTO and co-founder, Segment (opens in new tab)

Calvin French-Owen is the CTO and co-founder of Segment.