How (and why) marketing tech fails to deliver on its promise

Marketing technology promises to dramatically reduce wasted ad-spending and help marketers directly reach consumers with meaningful messages. Unfortunately, it hasn't delivered on that promise, and some marketing experts wonder if it ever will.

For all the hype around marketing technology today, consumers should be awash in creative media that excites and endears them to brands, and ultimately leads to surges in sales. Unfortunately for marketers, this vision is more fantasy than reality.

Marketing technology has evolved into a complex amalgamation of software, data collection and automation that aims to achieve the same simple goal marketing professionals have targeted for years, according Jake Sorofman, research vice president at Gartner. Ultimately, the promise of marketing technology is to deliver "the right message to the right customer or audience at the right time," Sorofman says.

However, the pillars of today's marketing technology, which are designed to achieve that promise, also create new complexities that limit brands' abilities to reach their objectives. "Adding technology to an ineffective marketing strategy simply accelerates the pace and reach of that ineffectiveness," says Mark Montini, chief results officer at the marketing firm M2M Strategies.

Marketing tech can't solve ad-waste dilemma

Brands and their marketing teams waste billions of dollars on digital ads that no human ever sees, let alone the specific people those companies try to reach. In late 2014, a Google report made the problem abundantly clear: Nobody sees a staggering 56.1 percent of all digital ads, according to the report.

[Related Feature: 7 marketing technology predictions for 2016]

"That kind of undermines the complete elimination of waste fantasy" that modern marketing tech perpetuates, according to Adam Kleinberg, CEO of advertising agency Traction. Marketing technology fails, because it rewards those who abuse it, he says.

"Marketing tech can't tell me if my ad made someone laugh or be inspired or simply nod their head and think, 'That brand gets me,'" Kleinberg says. "That's the fundamental power of great marketing."

Rebecca Lieb, an industry analyst and advisor, says it's too soon to tell if marketing technology will live up to some of the hype or prove to be an outright failure, because the market is currently in a period of hyper growth, development and refinement. "The promise is that everything will somehow pan out, streamline, integrate and just plain work," she says. "We're still very much in the cycle of building, invention, disruption and innovation. There's little in marketing tech that's static or standardized."

Integrating the key components of marketing technology — media software, social-media software and ad technology — remains a significant challenge, according to Lieb. Despite all the talk about and aspirations for the "marketing cloud," it "remains as elusive as it is undefined."

Marketers overlook customers in quest for more data

Technology challenges remain, but Lieb and Sorofman agree that an industry-wide lack of skills and misunderstanding of the space is particularly problematic. And marketers' unfettered interest in data often compounds these factors. "Marketers have pursued big data when they have small data challenges," Sorofman says. "They need to focus on the right data, which is often the first-party data they already have scattered across the organization."

Many marketers set themselves up for trouble when they embrace intrusive ad targeting, according to Sorofman. "This sort of indulgent, overreaching behavior has really invited the sort of backlash we have seen with the trend toward ad blocking."

[Related Feature: GE talks marketing automation at CES]

Data can be simultaneously powerful, useless and dangerous to marketers, according to Traction's Kleinberg. When marketers can't measure the appropriate data points using technology, they can end up optimizing campaign performance for tangential results and outcomes that don't serve the brand or customer, according to Kleinberg. "Data on its own does not help us — it's insight that does that. Without correct interpretation, data is meaningless and can cause paralysis at best and misguided efforts at worst."

"There is a lot of data being collected today without giving the consumer a terrific experience in return," says Sastry Rachakonda, CEO of digital marketing firm iQuanti. "Add the potential for data breaches, and the risk makes it that much more terrifying."

However, it's still a brand's responsibility to deliver experiences consumers want, according to Lieb. "Consumers have the power to go elsewhere now more than ever, and that's exactly what they will do with ever-increasing levels of transparency, trust, service, experience and pricing."

And while ad-blockers and other subversive tech may seem like the enemy of modern marketers, they could ultimately help the industry evolve for the better, according to Kleinberg. "I don't see ad blockers as a threat, but as the wisdom of crowds at work. When consumers intentionally seek out ways to avoid ads they deem intrusive, market forces will demand that marketers find new ways to reach them."

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