Modern marketing is more about farming than hunting

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Audience cultivation helps brands create and capture the most powerful data for them and their consumers, writes the chief strategy officer of Wunderman North America.

One of the greatest watershed moments for mankind was moving from hunting to farming. Hunting takes energy and isn’t efficient or scalable, whereas one-time farming investments provide returns over time. It’s cheaper to spend money on watering fields than filling leaky buckets, and easier to maintain systems than constantly building new ones.

Farming is the basis upon which we were able to establish society. Now imagine what those principles can do for our marketing. Like never before, we can identify, track and cultivate specific audiences over time—both current and prospective customers.

Transitioning to farming will help brands develop ways to identify, create and capture the data that is most powerful for them and their consumers, ultimately shifting from being data consumers to data creators.

Here’s how audience cultivation works:

Define your audience. The first part of becoming an audience cultivator is understanding who your audience is: not their demographics, but how they define themselves. Why would they buy your product? Just because I know your age, where you live, what you buy, and what your interests are doesn’t mean I know how to motivate you.

A brand may know that you have two kids and like tennis, but those are such specific tidbits that a creative team has no choice but to be very literal with it. Advertisers use data to paint a picture of a customer and while it may be accurate, it’s not necessarily how customers view themselves.

The fact that you’re into tennis isn’t nearly as important as why you’re into tennis. Figuring out the most critical whys is the first step to defining your audience in a powerful way.

Create your farm. The marketing data and technology stack is built to be commercially viable and purchased by as many brands as possible. The current data isn’t designed to be specific to your brand, or your individual consumers’ needs and wants.

Once you understand your audience, you can attract that audience and make them self-identify within your defined audiences, creating data that is more actionable for your brand. There are three ways to do this, or three types of farms: content, digital products and digital services.

Keeping with the tennis analogy, imagine that someone got into tennis in order to lose weight, and lost 50 pounds. This person likely sees himself as being into fitness and self-improvement—that, much more than the fact that he likes tennis, is a powerful insight that dictates the kind of content he would engage with. Once he engages with that content, we now know a key part of how he self-identifies.

Scale through intelligent media. We need to acknowledge there are (very broadly) two types of data. There’s data for informing targeting and media decisions, and data that inspires creative. They are not the same, and we cannot use targeting and media data to brief creative.

Media has become extremely sophisticated in terms of both the quantity and quality of targeting data. But while our algorithms and machines can help us measure and understand more data than ever before, the creative process hasn’t changed that much. It’s still run entirely by humans, who need data and information curated, prioritized and made insightful to be effective as inputs. We must cultivate audiences around identities, which are perfect for briefing creative. That way, we solve the motivation first, and then use targeting data to find and scale these audiences across the digital landscape.

The guy who loves tennis because he’s into self-improvement? We can motivate him with a campaign designed around a self-improvement insight that relates to a specific brand or business challenge. Even better, we can use sophisticated media and targeting data to find thousands of others who look like him, are likely motivated similarly and will respond to the same campaign.

We shouldn’t let data drive strategy; strategy needs to drive data. And if we can create the right kind of data—identity data—we can develop meaningful content and experiences that drive significant impact on consumers and for brands, and scale through sophisticated targeting and media.

—Matt Tepper is chief strategy officer of Wunderman North America.