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Take a look at any successful business and you’ll likely find many important and universal similarities. One of these is the ability to understand their audience, as well as how to accommodate them.
However, the truly successful will know how to surpass customer expectations and strive to foster strong customer relationships.
To accomplish this, businesses need the expertise of those like Phil Irvine.
The Vice President of RPA’s Audience Intelligence has a long history of working in customer relationships. For over a decade, Phil has been living for customer-centricity—fueling audience development and investment.
On behalf of RPA, he and his Audience Intelligence team have been pursuing their ultimate mission to use data for the sake of enhancing audience insights. This, he believes, ultimately drives better business outcomes.
To understand more about audience intelligence and how Phil works with ecommerce clients, we spent some time talking to RPA’s Vice President.
What is audience intelligence?
Can you tell me more about audience intelligence and what that means? How does your role tie into benefiting the ecommerce clients you work with at RPA?
Phil Irvine: RPA’s Audience Intelligence team is a critical function for all clients’ media strategy activities. Partnering with media strategy teams, RPA’s AI team has experience working with various audience management tools.
We use DMPs, CDPs, Web Analytics tools, and Media Activation platforms to parse through first, second, and third-party data signals to develop actionable audience insights.
From a media strategy perspective, these findings can be leveraged to provide inputs to help formulate general targeting strategies, creative, and overall messaging of campaigns.
These audience insights help clients become an expert on who exactly is interested in their product or service, and what these groups of people have affinities towards to speak to them more efficiently.
With regards to audience development and activation, the AI team partners with media investment and CRM teams to provide inputs into targeting, media mix, budgeting, and partner selection to incorporate into media buys.
If you could go back in time, what’s one piece of advice you’d give yourself? Is that advice similar to what you’d give to those starting off in the industry today?
Phil Irvine: There are thousands of things I wish I would give my younger self in terms of advice when I was first starting out. The big problem for me was that I failed to recognize what I could really control in terms of decision-making with some of my earlier roles.
I was a career switcher and moved into customer marketing after receiving my MBA. I constantly was attempting to connect my domain to higher-level strategic and financial strategies based on the focus on some of my coursework.
I think having this mindset of thinking big and trying to contribute “home run” type ideas is great, but didn’t always land the way I wanted.
I definitely wouldn’t sway anyone from thinking big regardless of the role they are in. But having a balance of bringing to the table big ideas with practical, short-term wins is crucial with growing one’s career.
These days I preach to my team, “Don’t let progress get in the way of perfection”. I feel like I live that out with the way I operate. A person can have all the greatest ideas in the world, but there are so many dependencies that determine if they will come to fruition.
The worst spot to be in is if one has worked hard to do a lot of brainstorming, but hasn’t moved the business forward at all. Getting into a mode of thinking about balancing this with short-term wins is advice I would even give younger people entering this arena these days.
Understanding how to work well with your team and with your own expectations is vital for any ecommerce marketer. This includes knowing whether there are useful tools available to help with your goals. Naturally, not all tools are useful to all businesses, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of what’s out there.
This also goes beyond the physical, like tools and apps, and into the realm of understanding your limitations and what’s blocking progress. With this in mind, we asked Phil about what can make things easier for ecommerce marketers, as well as what speed bumps they might encounter along the road.
Learning from and adapting to common mistakes marketers make
Do you have a go-to tool or app that makes your life easier? Or one that makes your ecommerce customers’ lives easier?
Phil Irvine: Since RPA is an agency that services clients, we don’t directly have ecommerce tools/apps in the mode of a traditional direct-to-consumer model. When observing some of the key trends with our clients who have ecommerce models though, self-service tools such as online chat and virtual assistants are becoming more and more popular.
You’ll still have a swath of customers that desire face-to-face or phone assistance, but more are desiring online chat and assistance as a means to get support. This has partially been driven by COVID, where consumers have been forced to transact remotely. They have been more conditioned to receive assistance online to help move them down the funnel to make purchases.
What’s one mistake you see a lot of ecommerce brands making? On the flip side of that, what’s one best practice you wish more brands would do? Do you find that brands are customer-centric enough?
Phil Irvine: This definitely is an oversimplification, but a lot of times you see ecommerce brands struggle with how to balance brand-type communications with direct response types of tactics. This is a balance that should always be treated as fluid, and aligned to where prospective customers are at in their buying process.
A lot of startup brands initially focus on creating awareness via a multitude of tactics. For example, a catchy video, testimonials, or ads to show they’re differentiated from the competition. This all makes sense for a brand that’s early in its growth cycle.
From experience, a lot of brands recognize this inflection point, but when they see positive returns, they sometimes forget about the importance of maintaining their brand perception and positive customer experiences.
A lot get caught up with focusing on tactics that purely drive revenue, which is bound to have diminishing returns at a certain point. I think every brand these days recognizes that being customer-centric is necessary to grow and maintain growth. The differentiation in success occurs with how they execute upon it.
Some are great with personalizing advertising, some with customer service, some with product development. But very few have the foundations in place to piece all of this together to transition to being customer first as opposed to customer-centric.
COVID-19, iOS 15, and other changes to ecommerce
Naturally, no ecommerce marketer can discuss business in the past few years without addressing the elephant in the room—COVID-19. The disease and pandemic have fundamentally changed the way customers behaved, regardless of the industry.
However, like every challenge, there will be some that rise to the occasion while others can’t help but fall. Considering that COVID benefited some and limited others, we asked Phil for his thoughts and feelings on the pandemic.
What has been the impact of the pandemic on ecommerce growth for your brands? Do you think there’s a good way for ecommerce brands to future-proof their growth strategies, or is it better to remain as nimble and reactive as possible?
Phil Irvine: The easy, direct answer here is that the pandemic was a major catalyst for scaling ecommerce growth for the brands we work with.
One of our major furniture retailers traditionally drove only 5% of sales online vs. brick and mortar locations, and that number jumped up to 20% during the pandemic. With another major hospitality client we work with, they have a similar distribution of online vs. offline sales.
Because of this, we are in active talks with them to vastly revamp their ecommerce capabilities, including their ecommerce platform and website experience. The pandemic, coupled with the advanced digital maturity of their competitors, has caused them to start to put an increased focus on this.
The natural inclination is to default to investing and scaling digital and ecommerce capabilities. It starts with understanding your customer base, as the goal should be to align the customer buying experience with behaviors exhibited by current customers.Phil Irvine, Vice President of Audience Intelligence RPA
Regarding future-proofing growth strategies, the natural inclination is to default to investing and scaling digital and ecommerce capabilities. I really think it starts with understanding your customer base, though, as the goal should be to align the customer buying experience with behaviors exhibited by current customers.
If their media consumption and purchase channel preferences have historically been via digital means, then that screams to brands to scale ecommerce.
There may be some scenarios where a customer base still might prefer face-to-face and in-store type of experiences. In those scenarios, I would still scale up some ecommerce capabilities, but not have it as a major focus to align with consumer behaviors.
COVID 19 isn’t the only thing to has changed the world of ecommerce over the past few years. Many larger companies, such as Google, Apple, and Facebook, have been updating privacy policies that force marketers to be more creative.
This has made data collection more challenging, which has made tailoring experiences to customers’ wants and needs more difficult. While this in itself must be frustrating for customer-centric ecommerce marketers like Phil, there’s been a larger cloud looming on the horizon recently—the iOS 15 update.
The update, which will remove open rate tracking for Apple Mail clients, has signaled larger, more widespread challenges to come. To see how this would impact audience intelligence, we raised the question of the iOS 15 update for Phil’s take on the matter.
What are your thoughts on the iOS 15 update and the dichotomy between privacy and marketing? Are there any other metrics you think might be at-risk in the future?
Phil Irvine: This is definitely a topic that’s top-of-mind for our agency and one that we’ve been flushing out multiple perspectives on. In our business, email is less of a focus for us, but the higher-level implications of iOS 14 and iOS 15 are extremely relevant for us.
The biggest hypothesis is that we’ll gradually start to lose visibility into who we’re targeting with advertising, scale issues, and also properly measuring response actions against various media tactics.
In our business, email is less of a focus for us, but the higher-level implications of iOS 14 and iOS 15 are extremely relevant for us. The biggest hypothesis is that we’ll gradually start to lose visibility into who we’re targeting with advertising, scale issues, and also properly measuring response actions against various media tactics.Phil Irvine, Vice President of Audience Intelligence RPA
In short, this is still unknown what the actual implications will be, but we have started working with clients to explore alternative methods to collect audience engagement signals and build target audiences. There are a lot of new identity management partners that are starting to offer audience products based on general website behaviors vs. some of the traditional methods that third-party data sources offer.
Additionally, we are exploring offerings that are using the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLOC) method to generate and measure audiences. More and more partners seem to be offering this as an option, which might eventually replace class website retargeting-type tactics.
How to future proof your growth strategy
What is something you’d advise an ecommerce merchant to do to future-proof their growth strategy?
Establish a test-and-learn culture throughout all facets of the organization. From marketing to product, to ecommerce, to service, having a culture where new ideas are encouraged and embraced is critical to stay on top of the changing data privacy environment.Phil Irvine, Vice President of Audience Intelligence RPA
Phil Irvine: On top of what I mentioned above related to understanding audience preferences, I would establish a test-and-learn culture throughout all facets of the organization. From marketing to product, to ecommerce, to service, having a culture where new ideas are encouraged and embraced is critical to stay on top of the changing data privacy environment.
Having said this, though, organization and establishing objectives for tests is also crucial to make the best use of everyone’s time. Organizations should look to set overarching learning agendas to focus on what tests should try to accomplish. This can then guide what tactical tests each functional area focuses on over time.
Aside from your own, of course, is there a blog, podcast, social account, etc. you recommend to those looking to grow?
Phil Irvine: I hate to self-promote, but my agency RPA will be launching a podcast in October called “Clear the Air with RPA”, it definitely will have some great tips for brands to check out! A few other ones that I’d recommend are AdExchanger Talks, The CMO Podcast, Ink Tank, and The Marketing Millennials.
Understanding your audience is vital for any business, regardless of its industry. This is what makes audience intelligence so important to ecommerce marketers like Phil, who knows that this essential knowledge helps you weather virtually any storm.
With the awareness of how your audience and customers react and engage with your business, you can also apply your learnings to your own business. At the end of the day, being on the same page as your audience is the best way to appeal to them—this is what should drive every ecommerce strategy, business plan, and marketing campaign.
For more about audience intelligence and how it helps craft better marketing strategies, follow Phil Irvine on Twitter, LinkedIn, and at RPA.
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