Using data to power better marketing decisions has been one of the most fundamental shifts in how business is done over the past decade. Analytics software, digital advertising channels, social media analytics, CRMs, and audience segmentation tools have allowed businesses large and small to produce growth at rates previously unheard of.
But all these tools only look at the audience you’re already reaching. That’s half the picture.
Marketing Intelligence is like uncovering that other eye you’ve had covered for all these years. It allows you to “see outside your own 4 walls” and understand what the rest of your market is doing.
Marketing Intelligence is a significant investment in improving your marketing performance. It also often fails to realize its true value by getting mired in complexity, which is where a lot of B2C companies get into trouble. There are hurdles to overcome like where the data will come from, determining if the data is trustworthy, knowing what exactly should be analyzed, hiring a team to do the research & generate insights, and— perhaps most importantly —ensuring that those insights get translated into action.
If you’re going to invest company resources into marketing intelligence, you better have a clear and effective process.
Here are the questions you must answer as you create a marketing intelligence process— these are essential to earning traffic, audience attention, and proving that your company’s investment is getting them a return.
When we’re working with clients at RightMetric, this is often the first stumbling block to setting up a marketing intelligence process. In the early days we found that surprising. “Don’t they know who their competitors are?”, we asked ourselves, but the answer is a little more nuanced than that.
Let’s use Red Bull as an example. At first glance, you might think that their competitors are Monster Energy, Rockstar Energy, NOS, and Amp Energy. They’re all energy drinks, right? But what about indirect competitors? Do some people who are considering grabbing a Coke at the convenience store make a last minute switch to Red Bull, hoping for a bit more of a boost for that long drive or study session?
It’s actually not even as simple as that, because Red Bull is a lot more like a media company than a beverage company. If you know Red Bull, you probably also know that they’re involved in almost every extreme and niche sport known to humankind, from Cliff Diving, to Rock Climbing, eSports, as well as staple sports like Mountain Biking. These are the true categories that Red Bull operates in.
Choosing competitors for marketing intelligence isn’t about who sells products like yours, it’s about who’s competing for your audience’s limited attention.
For example, in the bike category, Red Bull doesn’t compete with other beverages for online attention, it competes for the category leaders like X Games, Strava, Fox Racing, and Pinkbike.
TLDR: Choose a mix of direct competitors & industry (or category) leaders —That way you can do valuable benchmarking, but also learn things from leaders, and find out how to hold your specific audience’s attention.
This depends on the goals of your digital marketing strategy, but we often see companies fall into two main camps, brand-focused marketing and performance-focused marketing. This is a spectrum and a generalization, but we find traditional B2C companies often being more brand focused, with smaller DTC-type (or heavily reliant on ecommerce) companies being very performance focused.
When working with clients, we recommend looking equally at the brand and performance sides of things, but data is expensive and it’s not always possible to look at everything.
If you’re like most teams and have limited resources for marketing intelligence activities, these are the top-level metrics we recommend considering.
Regardless of where your company falls on the spectrum of brand or performance-focused marketing, you should know the essentials to inform an effective digital marketing strategy:
TLDR: For effective marketing intelligence, you want to be deeply aware of both your audience and competitors. Determine whether brand-focused or performance-focused metrics are most important for your digital strategy, but at least nail traffic, acquisition channels, competitors' budgets, and the audience’s content preferences.
“How can you even see those things?!”
We hear this really often in meetings when we start showing people what effective Marketing Intelligence can do for their business. For something so keenly needed by the marketing community, intelligence gathering— and what’s possible to see —is surprisingly misunderstood. The market is both young and fragmented.
Almost every company gathers Marketing Intelligence data in some way, from a local real estate agent keeping an eye on their competitors’ newspaper ad, to a multi-billion dollar brand creating their own data lake, viz platform, and buying data from direct sources like Nielson, Acxiom (now LiveRamp), or Avast’s Jumpshot panel (recently decommissioned).
It’s typically only once a company is of a certain size that they begin to make serious efforts into Marketing Intelligence. Here’s the pattern we’ve observed.
Notice the wide range of company size in the DIY Observation & Manual Labour phase? A company with 1,500— or even 500 — is vastly different than a company with 50 employees, yet we often find them using the same approach to marketing intelligence that was used when the company was 3x to 5x smaller.
What does this look like? Usually a huge focus on internal data like Facebook Audience Insights, Google Analytics, Digital Ad Dashboards, Social Media Analytics and Excel— so much Excel.
Interestingly, we’ve found that if companies stay in the DIY phase for too long, their overall costs are similar to a firm with a mature Enterprise Marketing Intelligence program, the breakdown of the costs is just different in each scenario.
Note that in the DIY scenario, Labour costs (read: forcing your marketing team to comb the internet for data points and be Excel jockeys) and the cost of confusion & poor decisions dominate, with a tiny piece of the pie going towards minor tool subscription fees.
In the Enterprise scenario, labour and poor decision costs are greatly reduced, but data costs sky-rocket.
The “best” approach to marketing intelligence deserves its own article, but at RightMetric we fall in the middle between DIY and Enterprise, with a convenient balance struck between cost, quality, and avoiding poor decisions.
TLDR: The cost of labour, confusion, and missed opportunities tend to be highest for mid-sized companies that haven’t outgrown only looking at internal data yet. For enterprise marketing intelligence, data costs dominate.
This is another topic that deserves its own article (we have one in the works! Sign up for our newsletter if you want to be notified when it’s ready), or even a book, but we’ll save our NYT Bestseller List ambitions for another day and share some core principles here that we follow at RightMetric when providing audience & competitor insights to our clients.
For Any Stat, Provide Context: Telling someone that their Engagement Rate on Instagram is 3% doesn’t give them much to work with. That could be good, could be bad, who knows? Including a comparison or benchmark immediately brings the stat into context. For example, if the industry average for accounts with this size of following is 5% and this particular account’s direct competitors average 7% ER, that 3% number is not good and requires improvement.
Pair Every Insight With a Recommended Action: The last thing we want to happen is to invest in creating a Marketing Intelligence process, purchasing data, labour, and infrastructure; all to generate useful insights… that ultimately go unused. We’ve learned this the hard way. Insights get used when you pair them with a recommended next step for the user.
Pair Every Insight With Proof: If the reader doesn’t find your conclusions credible, they won’t use them. We tackle this in two ways. First, next to any insight or conclusion, it’s critical to provide some form a quantitative proof, ideally in a visual format. This typically takes the form of a graph or tables that illustrates everything you analyzed (to support credibility) and boils it down to the key insight. Second, for any insights provided, it’s essential to link out to an in-depth methodology document. This provides the power-user that wants to dig deeper with the answers they’re looking for without turning a 10 page report into a 50 page report.
Avoid Snapshots & Focus on Trends Over Time: Similar to our “provide context” point above, analyses that focus on a snapshot in time can be inaccurate, misleading, or worse. For example, imagine if you decided to deconstruct your competitors’ digital marketing strategies using marketing intelligence, and you happened to do it in November. All the numbers— ad budgets, web traffic, social engagement, posting cadence, and more —would be completely skewed by Black Friday and the lead up to Christmas. This might seem obvious to some, but it’s easy to forget, and there are more pitfalls than any well-intentioned marketer or researcher can reasonably predict. As a rule - No snapshots, only trends over time. Realtime is best, but at least use historical data.
Make it Short, and Long: One of the coolest things about marketing intelligence is that it’s useful for almost anyone in the organization. The challenging thing is designing your marketing intelligence process so that it serves all those different user types. We’ll cover this in more depth in the next section, but the key point is to present insights in a way that can be consumed incredibly quickly by leaders who don’t need granular detail, but also presenting the granular detail elsewhere for the nerdy power user who wants to dig in.
There’s a few necessary elements to sharing Marketing Intelligence effectively.
Here’s how we typically recommend intelligence be shared, including cadence and the focus of the material.
In terms of format, there’s considerable debate about the best way to share marketing intelligence insights, with no true right answer.
Here are some common approaches.
Dashboards: Everyone loves the idea of dashboards, and there are some incredible tools available like Tableau and Google Data Studio to make them. Dashboards should be simple, clear, and automatically updated. There are a couple of challenges though. First, to update automatically dashboards rely on integrations and APIs, which surprisingly aren’t always available from marketing intelligence data sources. This becomes especially challenging (and expensive) when you’re pulling data together from dozens of sources. Second, dashboards are a passive source of insights. We often see a lot of work go into dashboards that are later forgotten about because they rely on the user to actively check in on them. A quick fix for this issue is to setup some kind of notification system that alerts the user when certain thresholds are met in the data that warrant a check-in.
Slide Presentations: The classic approach. Slides get a lot of hate, mostly because we’ve all sat through seemingly endless presentations at one time or another. The main benefit of slides is that almost every business person knows how to read them and create them. They’re a key medium of idea sharing at pretty much every company in the world. As we mentioned earlier in this article, marketing intelligence often fails due to complexity. Considering simple and accessible sharing methods like slides should never be off the table, especially if you need to communicate just a couple key points to the leadership team in the shortest amount of time possible.
Curated Alerts: This means some form of curated insights that are pushed to the user via a notification, email, or some other message. Curated Alerts are an interesting solution to the issues inherent in both dashboards and slide presentations because they provide insights in a way that keeps them timely, cherry picked to only show what’s relevant at the time, and that non-passively tells the user to pay attention. As an example, this could be an email alert to the digital advertising team when a competitor’s Facebook ad spend spikes from a new campaign. Curated alerts don’t even need to be automated. If you have a researcher on your team, it could be their responsibility to send a weekly marketing intelligence roundup message to the rest of the marketing team.
Improved marketing results are the ultimate goal of marketing intelligence. More sales, more customers, more brand awareness within the target audience; whatever the business objectives of marketing are at your company, they can’t be allowed to get lost in complexity or “shiny object syndrome”.
There needs to be a deep link between marketing strategy and marketing intelligence.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to building this link. No piece of software can automate it. No consultant that can do it for you. It’s cultural.
Marketing has been revolutionized by data over the past decade. Think back to 2009. If you were working in marketing back then, you know that data-driven strategy wasn’t really a thing yet, much less the buzzword that it is today. It’s taken time for marketing folks to adjust to using data to inform— and work alongside —their marketer’s intuition. The same cultural shift is on the horizon for marketing intelligence. Most of the data that has made an impact on marketing in the past 10 years has been internal data. Marketing intelligence is all about looking “outside your own 4 walls” to inform better business decision making. It’s a new way of thinking.
Whenever creating or refining marketing strategy, be sure to consider both internal and external data. The results will speak for themselves.