Recently I have invested a fair amount of time with CMOs and agency executives, working through the challenges that marketing faces, especially as shiny new objects like social and mobile develop some patina and digital gets categorized as a mature channel. In a past post on Forbes I called the era we now live in a “post-digital” world for marketers, because the strategies that matter most are those that don’t start with the channel (i.e. mobile-first or digital-first). Marketers need to put themselves in their customers’ seat and define the marketing activities they take on from a customer-first perspective.

Two years ago, Josh Bernoff and I answered the question of where competitive success would come from in the future. In that research, we defined the era we now live in, the age of the customer (see report, client access required). We just updated that report. Since we expect that era to continue for the next 20 years, you need to know what has changed. The age of the customer is defined by a number of undeniable trends:

  • Customers are empowered. From multitab browsers to mobile devices, most people hold the power of information in their hands. How often do you hear from agencies, reporters, and your own customers reinforcing that message?
  • Digital disruption is forcing change. Would you have expected Jeff Bezos to buy a newspaper, Google to own Motorola, or an eight-person company, Lose It!, to wreak havoc on the weight-loss industry?
  • The business is directing the technology budget. CIOs now have to manage two technology budgets — IT (infrastructure), which serves the operations of the company, and business technology (BT), which serves customers (see Forrester’s CEO George Colony's report and blog post on how the age of the customer will affect the technology management effort).

These trends force enterprises to be more flexible, more nimble, more global, and more connected than ever before. The only way to survive this era is to create a customer-obsessed enterprise, which we define in a report that George authored. This presents a vast opportunity for CMOs and CIOs to work together to deliver capabilities that were not possible in previous eras. They need to partner to develop the capability to:

  • Optimize their business through data. The value of big, or real-time, data is the ability to make intelligent decisions that quickly affect product and purchase decisions.
  • Present value in context. The flurry of interest in apps and programmatic ad buying are driven by the newfound ability to capture the profile, history, and context of consumers and place a relevant message right in front of them.
  • Engage with buyers when they are most interested. Business buyers may show interest a year or more before they are ready to transact. Companies that are customer-obsessed will invest in learning how to connect with those customers so that they are present when the budget is finally approved.
  • Create value in marketing through content. Content marketing and native advertising are front and center because the advertiser can offer value beyond 30 seconds or a page of emotional connection.

Who will win in this era? Early contenders like GE Oil & Gas have tied technology to their products using sensors to both enhance the offer and inform the marketing team at the same time. And Amazon, the master of using data to find connections between products and present customer-obsessed offers, continues to add services that consumers (and businesses) never would have expected from a retailer, like discounted replenishment services and free shipping combined with annual video streaming.

The age of the customer and the effort needed to become obsessed with your customers are here. The mandate to change your approach to your customer is your only option — unless you want to watch your competition walk away with your prize.