How Marketers Can Use Unstructured Data to Improve the Customer Experience


Marketers are on the Big Data train without exception these days, but unstructured data, of made up of social reviews, customer comments, voice recordings, agent notes and more, is often left out of that equation. InMoment CMO Kristi Knight explains how marketers can take the steps to embrace the goldmine that is their unstructured customer data

In the last few years, big data has gotten a lot of hype.

And marketers have jumped on the trend. Hard data measurements like engagement, click-through and conversion rates, content metrics, and cost-per-you-name-it are a goldmine for marketing decision-makers, giving them fairly straightforward ways to measure and prove their own success.

However, there’s one very important question that none of these metrics can answer: why do customers act and feel the way they do? To answer this question, marketers need to look beyond structured data and metrics.

How did we get here?

With the rise of the internet, marketers gained access to a larger source of customer data than ever before. While before marketers sourced feedback on the effectiveness of their campaigns through live avenues like market research studies and focus groups, the web offered digital, real-time metrics that are easily measurable and undeniable. Marketers knew more than ever about the where, when and who of their customers and their behavior.

With this inarguable proof in hand, marketers were endowed with more budget and increasing responsibility for driving revenue. This reward system boosted profit in the short term, but focused  marketers away from understanding and building relationships with customers and toward closing deals. 

At the same time, customer service was evolving from an operational tactic to reduce costs, into a more strategic “customer experience” mindset focused on building loyalty and brand advocacy. This shift, coupled with the emergence of digital touchpoints as critical components of customer relationships, means that marketers are being tasked with more ownership of the entire customer experience.

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As a result, many marketers also own customer satisfaction and loyalty metrics like Net Promoter Score (NPS), Overall Satisfaction (OSAT), and Customer Effort Score (CES). And while it’s tempting to view these scores the same way we view other marketing metrics, it is essential that we gain a deeper understanding of the why behind customer behaviors and perceptions. This is the only way we can be successful guardians of the entire customer experience.

The first step is to look beyond the numbers. Yes, scores and ratings are helpful as indicators and benchmarks. However scores alone never tell the full story. They can tell you the what, but they completely miss the why. In addition, scores cannot account for basic differences in human beings. Some of our customers are simply “hard graders,” and will never give a top score regardless of the experience. Others are the opposite, ranking experiences high even when there was ample room for improvement.

Score-based insights are extremely difficult to turn into actionable business improvements because you’re shooting in the dark. If my NPS is 54, I know there’s plenty of room for improvement. I can make assumptions, but the only way to ensure I’m prioritizing what’s most important to customers—and most impactful to my bottom line—is to understand the why. 

Learning more about customers through unstructured data

Today’s customers— both B2C and B2B— have nearly unlimited choices and can push their buying power toward brands they like best, both in-store and online. Marketers must understand why customers act the way they do or risk losing repeat business.

By mining unstructured (qualitative) data, marketers may validate/invalidate score-based hypotheses and pinpoint customers’ motivations. For example, while hard metrics like engagement rates may show that consumers prefer interacting with a brand via a mobile app, a survey, social comments and even feedback from your employees can reveal why this trend exists.  It can also help you understand how important the various elements of the customer experience are in relationship to one another, and surface the emotional impact as well. Uniting both unstructured and structured customer data with contextual data from CRM, transactional, loyalty and operational systems helps marketers make smarter decisions, faster.

Technologies like text analytics now enable marketers to interpret and instantly respond to unstructured feedback. However, while technology platforms can surface insights and deliver recommendations to the appropriate areas of the business, it’s in the court of the recipient of those insights to act. If you “own” customer experience, your first responsibility is to walk-that-walk within your own department, and then encourage, and empower when possible, your colleagues to do the same. Organizational readiness — including culture and executive buy-in —  are essential to turn unstructured feedback into positive change.

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With great power…

Marketers are increasingly responsible for company success as brand promise and customer experience merge. While marketers have control over customer experience strategy, they often struggle with success because they don’t own most of the execution. At a bank, for example, marketers may control the company’s marketing messages and online banking experience, but they have little sway over the behavior of tellers. Nonetheless, a negative in-store experience reflects poorly on customer experience and thus brand perception.

To overcome this disconnect and fully leverage the power of unstructured customer data, marketers must take the following steps:

  • Be purposeful:  Outside of focus groups and interviews, marketers don’t have a lot of experience with unstructured customer feedback. They need a deliberate plan for finding, collecting and bringing the right technology to analyze that type of data from across all customer touchpoints. This does not happen by accident, and requires significant coordination across departments and technologies. 
  • Mine with the right tools:  Unstructured data can become unruly at scale, especially when you don’t have the right technology to automate the process of surfacing insights. Text analytics technology has reached a level of maturity that makes this possible, however, not all solutions are right for you.  Make sure the vendor you select has expertise in tuning text analytics to your industry and your business, otherwise the technology will miss many of the insights and may even lead you astray. And take time to educate yourself on terms like recall and precision rates, phrase-based versus comment-based sentiment, as well as the solution’s ability to get smarter over time.   
  • Collaborate:  The most fascinating thing about unstructured data is that it contains both the answers to questions you ask directly, as well as everything else customers want to tell you — including what data scientists refer to as “unknown unknowns,” or questions you would never in a million years think to ask. The resulting insights will inform all kinds of marketing decisions, and contain essential learnings for other places in the business as well. Get outside of your marketing silo and share the information with other leaders. It’s good for them, good for the business, and as guardian of the brand, will directly serve you as well.

Hard metrics will remain important as a way to track performance in both marketing and broader customer experience initiatives. However, numbers alone can never answer the why and are inherently limited.  Becoming adept at gathering and understanding the deep intelligence inside unstructured customer data will give your team an entirely new level of understanding — from how best to target customer segments, to retention, and even defining differentiators and refining your brand promise. When as a marketer, you have the added responsibility of owning customer experience and doing that well, your opportunity to positively impact the bottom line increases exponentially.