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AWS CMO Rachel Thornton on the future of customer-obsessed marketing in 2022

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Business leaders around the world continue to adjust to the ongoing impact of the pandemic, while also trying to keep pace with rapid technological innovation. Marketing leaders and their teams are also adapting to the “new normal” of rapid change and the impacts it continues to have on customer experiences. 

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to join discussions with several of my industry peers on this topic in a variety of engagements. In January, for example, I joined Karen Walker, chief marketing officer of Intel, at her global marketing town hall. We were able to record the discussion and I have included snippets of our conversation in this post.

Based on these discussions, as well as ones I have every day with our customers and partners, I remain optimistic about what’s ahead for the intersection of marketing and technology in 2022. Here are three things I have found to be even more true over the past two years and how they shape my planning for this year:

Customer obsessed marketing requires experimenting and piloting new technologies The hybrid event model is here to stay driving stickier engagement with customers and partners Continue to reimagine what works for your remote and in-person team Customer obsessed marketing: Experiment, learn, scale 

The backbone of Amazon Web Services (AWS)’s marketing engine is data. It enables us to better serve our customers, anticipate their changing needs and build a sustainable business for a better tomorrow. Customer obsession is core to AWS, and being data-driven in everything we do is part of how we remain focused on the customer. Every day, my team starts from the customer (or partner) and works backward to deeply understand their challenges and opportunities.

Then we invent on their behalf to develop marketing programs that educate and inspire customers about what is possible with the cloud. Technology investments in our mar-tech stack, lead management engine and campaign and event production have helped us build the critical foundation for creating more targeted programs, tighter customer connections and more effective campaigns with better engagement rates. Not everything we pilot works, but failing fast and learning means we are better set up for the next pilot and ultimately better able to quickly move our most successful pilots to production. 

According to the 2021 CXO Tech Agenda – The Post-Covid Landscape by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and Barron’s Group Intelligence, “55% of respondents said they aim to be considered a disruptive enterprise…” highlighting the need for organizations to invest in technology that can fuel customer-centric innovation. Experimenting with technology, such as machine learning (ML) or artificial intelligence (AI), in marketing can help unlock new opportunities for customer experiences and potentially drive greater business impact. 

We are seeing our customers create better engagement experiences for their customers by leveraging technologies like ML and AI to increase campaign response rates or serve relevant content faster with intelligent search. A great example of piloting a new technology to create a more engaging customer experience is what the PGA TOUR has done with Every Shot Live, an over-the-top (OTT) streaming platform powered by AWS that gives PGA TOUR fans live access to every shot from every player in a tournament.

Through the use of AWS technology, the PGA TOUR was able to rapidly transform its content and provide fans with richer details on their favorite golfers, the shots and the scores. Fans love the ability to go deeper on which players and which shots impact the leaderboard rankings. 

In the 2021 CXO Tech Agenda study, by The WSJ | Barron’s Group Intelligence, “51% of respondents ranked new technology piloting & adoption as the greatest transformation initiative for the years ahead.”

Another example closer to home is how the AWS marketing team has increased our use of ML models to help us:

Design customer experiences that are more intentional and tailored and result in higher engagement ratesCreate more sophisticated marketing engagement scoring models to measure program resultsQuickly scale our technical documentation (user guides, tutorials, etc.) globally with tools like Amazon TranslateIncreasing our use of AI and ML services has really helped us across so many aspects of our marketing and based on the results we have seen, I believe ML will be one of the most transformational technologies of the next few years. I encourage all marketers in 2022 to think about ways they can leverage it to create powerful customer experiences.

Adapting with customers: The hybrid event model is here to stay 

For almost three years now, everyone has navigated one of the most disruptive times in modern history due to COVID-19. So many things have changed and from a marketing perspective, one of the biggest changes we have seen is to live events, which had to be paused in 2020 and then completely reimagined as digital experiences.

If there’s one thing we’ve taken away from the last few years of experimenting, it’s that the need for a flexible, hybrid customer/partner engagement strategy is here to stay. The pandemic has accelerated our thinking around creating virtual content that can be on-demand or ‘always on,’ as well as how we incorporate hands-on learning on virtual platforms to keep our customers engaged.

While we were all forced to move to a virtual event model, we found customers love the chance to see technology in action, like with our virtual Immersion Labs where a customer can spend a few hours, a few days a week, learning with an expert. These customized and interactive sessions allow our experts to hone in on what the customer needs to navigate their cloud journey. 

One of the biggest challenges for my team was recreating our annual in-person customer conference, re:Invent, in a completely digital format. The first year of the pandemic, when all events moved to a virtual format, we reimagined what a virtual re:Invent would be. The team looked at every aspect of our in-person re:Invent and figured out how to translate it to a virtual experience, all while keeping the bar high on our keynotes, breakout sessions, labs and workshops.

We were encouraged by the results. We had over 300,000 people join virtual re:Invent and participate in all the activities they would have expected at the in-person event and we exceeded our overall CSAT score of 4.0 (out of 5). For 2021, we created a hybrid re:Invent experience with 26,000 customers joining us in Las Vegas (with strict COVID-19 safety protocols) and hundreds of thousands of customers participating in our virtual experience. On-demand resources and recordings from the conference were made available, so the value of attending virtually or in person could be leveraged anywhere a customer might be. 

With these pivots in digital engagement strategy and by testing out new programs, we’ve been able to engage more customers and partners globally to create unique experiences that meet them where they are. We’ve also been able to take key lessons and apply them to optimize our engagement programs for the future—even in a post-pandemic world.

Reimagine what works for your hybrid team  

Finally, another key area my leaders and I are doubling down on in 2022 is continuing to foster a strong collaborative environment across hybrid teams. According to the 2021 CXO Tech Agenda study, “87% of respondents believe that remote work is here to stay,” further reinforcing the need for continued and improved connectivity between teams. It’s critically important that when my teams get together, they know why they are meeting and what outcomes they are looking to achieve. One of my biggest pieces of advice is to double down on the right internal meetings, especially as we continue with hybrid work environments. Everyone is busy and so having clarity about meeting goals and objectives respects everyone’s time and ensures everyone remains productive.

Along with productivity, speed matters in business. Therefore, when high-velocity decision-making is required and you are navigating a virtually-connected team, one of our Leadership Principles – Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit – becomes especially valuable. This Leadership Principle supports respectful, active dialogue of differing opinions so that, once a decision is made, we all commit wholly and move forward cohesively. In a hybrid work environment, this becomes fundamental and allows us to maintain our speed when making strategic decisions. 

As we continue to navigate an increasingly complex but also exciting world, we should empower teams to be agile. We do this by keeping them informed to make consistent, data-driven decisions quickly. This then helps create better programs for customers. Remaining agile is critical for attracting and retaining talent, as well as helping our customers and partners be successful. I’m excited about the future of marketing as we navigate these times of experimentation and scale and I believe technology will continue to be a key enabler for marketers to work smarter, remain flexible and continue to deliver exceptional customer experiences. 

Key Takeaways 1. Be data driven. Leverage technologies like AI/ML and analytics to create customer-obsessed marketing; don’t be afraid to pivot your strategy as it allows for experimentation and options that can potentially delight customers even more.
2. Reimagine customer experiences for the hybrid event model. The hybrid event model is here to stay. It’s important to reimagine all the customer touchpoints and experiences for both the live and virtual event.
3. Encourage learning and curiosity across your organization. Building out new ways for teams to collaborate and learn from each other keeps your teams connected. Providing flexibility for in-person, remote and hybrid work environments fosters trust and engagement.

Rachel Thornton is the vice president and chief marketing officer of Amazon Web Services 

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