Ten Big Questions Every CMO Must Ask

When I started writing this column more than three years ago, my official title was chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer. It wasn’t a coincidence that I added “customer satisfaction.” To me, it more accurately reflected my mission, role, and world view of marketing. It reflected a belief, solidified in so many of my columns, that you simply can’t decouple service and marketing in this new era of consumer control. Without satisfied customers, we simply can’t market. Without strong customer advocates, we simply can’t sell.

My tweak on my title was just a small part of an exploration of marketing by just about every CMO. The advent of digital and social media, in particular, has introduced a host of important new questions to ask, evaluate, and ask again. While the perfect answers may be elusive for sometime, it’s critical, as I learned so well in basic training at Procter & Gamble, that we continue asking the right questions. Below, I’ve outlined 10 key questions every CMO and brand-builder today needs to probe and explore. There are more, of course, but this is an important start.

  • What’s the strategic relevance of listening? Listening has always been important, the foundation for marketing success. But it takes on critical new dimension and significance in this age of consumer control. Empowered consumers talk all around us today, with or without our permission or preferred parameters of dialogue. Moreover, their conversations have real consequence and value to brands on many levels. Brands need to ask hard strategic questions about how deeply and intimately they want to understand and relate to these conversations, even the angry ones. For folks like Joel Rubinson, the newly appointed chief research officer of the Advertising Research Foundation, this question is at the top of his new agenda.
  • How do we stay credible with consumers? If CGM (define), social media, the blogosphere, and Wikipedia have taught us anything, it’s that we must be credible if we’re to withstand consumers’ attentive eyes and expressive mouths. We can’t BS, and we can’t dance around issues. In my upcoming book, I focus on six drivers of credibility: trust, authenticity, transparency, listening, responsiveness, and affirmation, and each introduces its own set of additional questions. With or without books to guide us, we must constantly revisit the credibility equation.
  • How do we gain permission to market to consumers? What is permission? Seth Godin got it right many years ago with “Permission Marketing,” but the permission landscape, especially in a social media enabled world, has shifted dramatically, and we must keep revisiting the question. Peer-to-peer “permission,” one could argue, is raising the bar around what many might consider very loose and presumptuous permission standards by advertisers. Our success as businesses will depend on how well we define the permission landscape.
  • What is engagement? How do we measure it? The industry effort to use engagement as a next-generation metric is spot-on, but so far we’re all over the map. Not that consensus is critical; the exploratory and debate and fresh new questions it stimulates may well be the higher benefit here. But it’s time to converge on common metrics that drive more transparency and simplicity in media and marketing planning. Every CMO should start thinking about what engagement means and how it can be leveraged as a powerful new measurement and accountability standard.
  • How do we stay authentic and meaningful with consumers? An outgrowth of consumers’ well-documented distrust of advertising is a parallel consumer need and expectation for greater authenticity. Consumers are placing a higher value on that which appears real, sincere, consistent, and genuine. Hence the growth in organic claims, corporate blogs reflecting the passion of senior executives or product managers, and more. Some, like Bob Gilbreath and Jay Woffington of integrated agency Bridge Worldwide, refer to this as “meaningful marketing.” Whatever we label it, consumers are looking for more substance, meaning, and authenticity in how we market. This isn’t an easy question. Balancing the quest for authenticity with imperatives of growth presents numerous challenges.
  • How do we facilitate and catalyze cross-functional relationships to unleash new value and synergy? If anything, the growth of digital and social media has severely blurred boundaries between corporate silos, and while this brings some order of short-term complexity and confusion, it also presents opportunity. Companies have a unique opportunity to redesign and reshape the organization. Does it still make sense, for instance, for marketing and consumer affairs to sit in independent silos, consistently contradicting each other in the respective approaches to consumer engagement and attention? At some point, do research and media start to become one and the same, insofar as media measurements are bringing unprecedented levels of research value to the table? What about advertising versus PR firms? They’re both breathing down the neck of social media and world-of-mouth practices in an effort to get closer to real consumer behavior. Are these silos sustainable?
  • How do we intervene with consumers at critical inflection points? What are they? Search has taught us that advertising works at that key inflection point when the consumer is curious. Consumers seek content, and targeted advertising attempts to satisfy that need with content, solutions, or additional needs. This is just tip of the opportunity iceberg digital and interactive present. We simply need to map out the change and inflection points where advertising has the opportunity to bring value or solutions to the table. Relationship marketing, enabled by smarter CRM (define) systems, is a key part of the equation.
  • How much marketing budget should be invested in indirect activities? What I can clearly see after analyzing CGM for nearly eight years is that a significant percentage of media is now coming directly from consumer-to-consumer communications. This is the product of indirect activity, not paid media. Investing in social responsibility is a classic indirect marketing activity. Investing in consumer affairs is another. So, too, is customer service. While we focus intense attention on media optimization, we often neglect the areas that fall outside the paid model. This all needs to be carefully reevaluated.
  • How do we nurture customer advocacy? In the age of virality, loyalty just isn’t enough. Advocacy is the engine behind word of mouth, CGM, and so much more. Brand advocacy matters today because it precipitates an indelible digital trail of commentary that publicly rewards or indicts brand performance or the fulfillment of brand promises. The key is to understand the core drivers of what specifically nurtures advocacy.
  • How do we protect and defend brand equity and reputation? Let’s face it. It’s much harder to protect brand equity in the age of consumer control. Bad news travels fast, Google search results keep bad buzz front and center, and Wikipedia acts like a constant reminder to the world of brands defects, shortcomings, and failures. CMOs must think long and hard about what it takes to insulate and protect their brands, as well as manage difficult situations.

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