Tech Line

Elevating the Hybrid Experience is Critical for Customer Engagement

As marketing executives sort through today’s often confusing array of digital tools and channels, it’s painfully clear that success requires more than state-of-the-art technology. How a company approaches and interacts with customers is at the heart of engagement—and business success.

Unfortunately, the focus typically skews toward digital automation. Yet, generating more emails won’t bridge this digital disconnect. In many cases, it actually makes things worse. What’s a key to overcoming digital fatigue? Adopt a framework that involves a hybrid experience. This means personalizing and contextualizing content but also connecting marketing to the physical world.

The new June 2022 study from Forrester on behalf of PFL, Hybrid Experiences Bring Direct Mail Into The Digital Age, examined this complex and often confusing space. It surveyed 158 B2B marketing leaders in North America. Among other things, it found that marketers tend to react to digital fatigue by turning up the digital volume rather than adopting a more human-centric approach.

“Today, B2B marketers have more digital means and opportunities to engage their customers, but few use these to create the right impact,” Forrester noted. “Indeed, marketers’ overuse of digital touchpoints, including emails that get ignored, phone calls that lie forever at the bottom of a voicemail inbox, and banner ads that fail to register an eye flicker, have trained B2B buyers to duck and cover when marketers reach out, rather than lean in and engage.”

Avoiding the Numbers Game

At the heart of the problem is a disturbing tendency for marketers to view customers merely as cheap, exploitable resources, Forrester pointed out. CMOs continue to slide the dial toward more automation. What’s overlooked and underutilized is the opportunity to break through the digital din with complementary analog experiences. This includes physical mail, product samples and much more.

In a world where consumers have more choices than ever—and near zero patience for just anything that doesn’t interest them—adopting a hybrid approach is critical.

In a world where consumers have more choices than ever—and near zero patience for just anything that doesn’t interest them—adopting a hybrid approach is critical. According to the study, 76 percent of respondents recognize that their buyers are less likely to engage with digital marketing touchpoints than only a year ago. Nevertheless, 80 percent continue to increase their reliance on digital frameworks. On the other hand, 78 percent report that analog methods are advantageous, and 81 percent admit that they personally are very likely to open a package at work or in a work context.

To be sure, email offers numerous benefits—and it’s a valid tool for driving customer engagement—yet it’s only part of the story. And organizations that rely too heavily on it do so at their own peril. Forrester points out that it’s merely a piece of the overall puzzle. The primary focus must be on elevating the human experience.

Integrating analog experiences contributes to this more evolved marketing framework. What’s more, it’s possible to incorporate it at various stages of the customer lifecycle. “This includes from early product or service discovery (72 percent) to the point of conversion (63 percent), and through customer engagement and enrichment (54 percent) to help foster deeper brand relationships and encourage customer advocacy,” Forrester noted.

In practical terms, marketing leaders might consider offering a customer a welcome letter or package, recognition for key business milestones and life events; holding live meetings and special events; using influencer engagement via social media; and holding video chat or live face-to-face meetings for sales. These methods help quell digital burnout and boost engagement by making interactions more human, personal, and even fun.

A Question of Balance

There’s good news: according to Forrester, CMOs and other executives are beginning to recognize the power of hybrid marketing. More than half said that they are now increasing their spend on direct mail compared to the previous year. In fact, the trend is gaining momentum. Overall, 69 percent of respondents report plans to increase direct mail spending in 2023, including 18 percent who are expecting a substantial increase of 20 percent or more. That equates to a 27 percent annual increase in direct mail budgets through 2023.

The bad news? Despite the efficacy of hybrid marketing and the ability to boost brand loyalty and revenues, many marketing executives continue to think about channels in highly rigid ways. As a result, they rely on outdated marketing tactics that fail to deliver. For example, 80 percent of survey respondents increased spending on digital channels due to the pandemic, despite the fact that customers are less likely to engage with them.

Why does this disconnect exist? Eight out of 10 respondents (81 percent) said that it comes down to one reason: digital touchpoints are easier to measure than physical touchpoints. In fact, 75 percent of survey respondents noted that they would increase their use of direct mail for marketing campaigns if it were easier to deliver engaging and differentiated campaigns. Alas, Forrester pointed out that this is out of touch with how direct mail works today. “Most solutions run on software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms capable of launching a single, customized physical mailer at a moment’s notice to meet the unique needs of both recipients and senders,” it noted.

It’s vital to address several issues in order to put this more enlightened model into motion. These include getting rid of customer data systems that aren’t compatible with direct mail, eliminating a bias toward digital touchpoints, understanding that it’s possible to personalize direct mail, recognizing that personalization campaigns can work at scale, learning how to orchestrate direct mail with other personalized marketing method, and gaining the right technology and skills to master an integrated approach.

Bridging the Digital Disconnect

Overcoming these challenges requires different thinking and behavior. The first step, Forrester points out, is to address the negative impact of poor personalization and an unwillingness to embrace direct mail and other hybrid techniques. In fact, 46 percent of respondents admitted that poor personalization leads to buyer opt-out while 43 percent said that it causes wasted marketing dollars. An inability to use physical mail strategically can also damage customer relationships, 41 percent recognized.

However, the challenge isn’t as steep as many CMOs might believe. “Modern, SaaS-based direct mail platforms marry the measurement, orchestration, and optimization traditionally associated with digital marketing with the analog engagement that direct mail can deliver. This lets marketers deploy direct mail as a deliberate, dimensional, and digitally integrated tactic,” Forrester explained.

Those that adopt a successful hybrid model gain an ability to scale direct mail delivery up and down based on current budget or practical requirements, automate mail creation and delivery tied to buyer purchase signals and behavior, tie direct mail planning and execution to buyer journey insights, improve orchestration across marketing channels, and gain deeper insight into various events so that it’s possible to time experience delivery with customer signals.

In other words, organizations gain broader and deeper insights that can prove transformative. At that point, they move beyond tactical and into the realm of strategic. As Forrester put it: “Modern hybrid experiences turn direct mail into a sophisticated, valuable marketing tactic—one that helps marketers deliver buyer experiences that use customer understanding to frame, guide, and enhance interactions based on that person’s history, preferences, context, and intent.”

Hybrid Elevates Marketing to a New Level

The benefits don’t stop there. With more powerful tools in place, organizations gain flexibility to scale with demand, measure and optimize performance, and better integrate and orchestrate direct mail with other marketing touchpoints. These results can be transformative. For example, 75 percent of the survey respondents said that better understanding and improved access to hybrid experiences would encourage them to increase their investment in direct mail, and 37 percent said it could prompt them to boost direct mail and other hybrid techniques significantly.

The takeaway? While there’s no simple solution, avoiding change will only make things worse. Organizations and marketing departments must rethink and recalibrate their efforts in order to realize success in an increasingly noisy and crowded environment. CMOs and other marketing executives must better integrate CRM and other systems into existing solutions and workflows, generate better digital breadcrumb trails and improve automation so that it’s smarter and more effective.

Make no mistake, there’s no substitute for treating humans like humans and delivering content that truly matters. A hybrid approach serves as the foundation for this more connected and highly engaged framework. Marketing leaders who successfully adopt this methodology while plugging in the right technology and level of creativity will connect with customers in more meaningful and compelling ways. They build greater brand affinity and a more successful and profitable business.

Click here to download the full study from Forrester.

Samuel Greengard writes about business and technology. His latest book is The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2021).