As companies around the globe seek to tap the potential of digitization, marketing can establish itself as a pathfinder to customer-driven business performance.

The road to successful marketing in a digital world is bumpy and sometimes even quite perilous as wrong decisions or lack of speed can create competitive disadvantages. While there is no “magic bullet” to fight your way through danger, here are a few words of advice to improve your odds for a successful journey – combining traditional marketing skills with modern marketing tools to create sustainable business value.

1. Set and State Your Ambition

In the old days, when explorers decided to traverse the earth, the seas, the skies, and even the moon, on expeditions to places where nobody had ever been, there was one major step that they always took – often as the very first step: They announced their intention to the public, or at least to a broad group of peers. They wanted to take a stand and declare what they believed was possible – even though it had never been done before. And in addition, they sometimes even wanted to “reinforce their troops” and convince fellow men to join them.

While the quest for marketing to succeed in the digital world might not match the magnitude of Sir Edmund Hilary’s ascent of the Himalaya, it sure represents a decisive step as the digitization of business and private life provides the perfect stage to prove the value of marketing as a competitive business asset. If marketing really wants to step up and redefine its role along the whole value chain, then it should openly communicate this attitude towards all internal stakeholders. And of course it should make sure to back up these big words with big actions. After all, no one knows the name of the guy that “almost” made it to the mountain top.

2. Be Fit and Prepared or You Will Fail

Admittedly, modern marketers need to be in the know when it comes to things like referral marketing, marketing automation, or social amplification – but these are just tools. Successful marketing is still and will still be about creating meaningful conversations with the customers that will ideally drive their thoughts and actions. So the “environment” to think about is not digital, social, offline, or online – it is the life of the people.

One great example here is the B2B brand Maersk, a global container shipping company that created an extremely successful social media campaign because they asked themselves, “What impact do we want to have on our audience and how can we use the mechanisms and peculiarities of the different platforms to achieve this?” Following this customer-driven approach, they created a global spotting trend for containers and ships on Instagram and Pinterest. They used LinkedIn to establish a forum for business discussions in the shipping and logistics industry and they rounded everything off by tapping into the personal power of Facebook as they encouraged crew members to share pictures and stories from their global trips with the rest of the world. Maersk found a great way to answer the omnipresent question facing many companies – “Where do we need to be in the social sphere?” – by simply saying, “Where we believe we can create relevance for people!”

3. Know and Respect the Environment

If you head off to explore unknown territory, an important aspect – as many adventurers will tell you – is to respect the environment and engage in conduct that is in line with the “unwritten laws” of the nature. The customers decide whom they accept and whom they dismiss – and the increased transparency and communicative power of the social world have given them even more ways to act out this power. So the magic triad for companies needs to be Listen-Learn-Act. Real champions of modern marketing have found ways to leverage social media as a source of insight that can bring them closer to their customers.

Cisco is a great example in this context. In 2012, the company launched its Social Media Listening Center, an initiative where they analyze and visualize what the social sphere is talking about Cisco and the related business topics. Cisco listens to over 5,000 social mentions a day on Facebook, Twitter and other social channels and shares the lessons learned via online platforms and a multiscreen presentation room in their headquarter and other global locations. As they make the insights available for internal and external audiences alike, the Social Media Listening Center is a great way to showcase the forward-thinking and customer-first attitude of the company on the one hand, while they actively support sales on the other hand. Cisco announced that thanks to the center, they can generate an annual benefit of approximately USD $1.5 million. That’s not a bad bonus payment for simply being an attentive listener.

4. Make Friends with the Natives

There is a famous phrase: Everybody is a foreigner – in almost every land in the world. As a twist on this thought, you can also say, “Wherever you are as a foreigner, there is certainly always a native.” If you are on an adventure trip, these natives can be vital for your success. And if you think about your marketing expedition into the heart of “Digitalland”, there are a lot of natives you will meet along the way. As with any tribe, theirs is often run by a chief, in this case the Chief Technology Officer or the Chief Innovation Officer. To tap the full potential of truly customer-centric marketing in a digital world, marketers need to become more tech-savvy and actively approach the tech teams. In the light of dramatic market changes and a constant stream of new competitors that enter the playing field without any organizational legacies, the question is not, “Can we bridge the silos and join forces?” But rather, “How can we bridge them fast enough to outrun the pack of hounds at our heels?”

There are some great success stories that show how powerful such a coalition can be. In 2014, Keith Weed, the global CMO at Unilever, came up with a forward-looking, entrepreneurial idea to support the company’s quest to make sustainable living commonplace. He called upon different internal stakeholders – inside and outside of marketing – to jointly establish an open crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platform called The Foundry. It brings together consumers, key opinion formers, innovators, as well as financial and technological partners, to find new solutions for the big challenges of society. Admittedly, this is one of the highlight examples of modern marketing and you will not find initiatives of such magnitude in many other companies, especially if you look at the initial USD $6 million investment that Unilever spent. But in essence, it shows how the digital era represents a great stage for marketing to combine its customer-driven mindset with entrepreneurial thinking to step into the spotlight and prove its value as a business driver. And this stage is big enough to invite corporate colleagues as well from sales, R&D, product management, HR – you name it. Because, after all, whether you are at a campfire BBQ with your indigenous friends in the middle of the jungle, or on the fifth floor of your local headquarters planning the next social media campaign, one thing is for sure: The more, the merrier!

Top image via Shutterstock