Hacking used to have a negative connotation, as in cheating, abusing, deception; usually circumventing security and/or a program’s intended purpose. The word carried a violent, threatening connotation. Somewhere down the line, hacking became cool. Not just the white hat hackers, pointing out the vulnerabilities in an effort to improve. Suddenly, everything that Silicon Valley favored earned the scrappy, start-uppy “Hack” badge of honor. Witness “Growth Hacking” which is guerrilla marketing in the digital age. In other words “Our product is really good so we don’t have to buy our publicity”. A nice place to be. But that quickly was mis-interpreted as outsmarting the market, breaking the rules and manipulating perception. This interpretation tripped us up. Change, pace and complexity are exploding in business. Naturally, we want to hack our way through this madness and find the simpler, faster route to success. There must be a smarter way! Why not hack our customers… to bits! It turns out that’s not such a good idea.
The “magical powers” of both marketing and technology have collided in the digital era to create the myth of customer hacking: If you have the right widget, you can expose a customer’s digital persona, which is the same as knowing everything they want. Find those that want your stuff, even if they don’t realize it, and… jackpot! The brand is back in control. A surprising number of marketers believe in this magic hack. They may not say it but their behavior demonstrates this belief. They pay huge sums of money to gather 3rd party data and bombard their prospects in the digital world. Usually they miss the mark and often they alienate their customers and prospects in the process. The tragic part is, the digital era does provide an excellent opportunity for brands to know their customers. But many brands are trying to shortcut the process rather than earn the insight through the heavy lifting of customer engagement.
Customer hacking is the act of tricking your customers into a business transaction. That doesn’t sound like a very effective long-term strategy, does it? Regardless, this is a beloved marketing practice. Practitioners don’t see it in these terms, of course. They think that if they can just find out enough about their customers (demographics, likes, tendencies, browsing history, buying patterns and thousands of other characteristics) by whatever means necessary, they can manipulate customers into a business transaction. They think they can buy customer insight, even steal it without the customer’s full knowledge. That’s how we get to the corporate espionage culture. At the center of this mistake is the confusion between data and insight. Data is easy (if not cheap) to obtain, insight takes considerable, ongoing effort. I can buy customer data anywhere. I have to change my corporate culture to effectively build customer insight through an entirely new process and approach, in willing collaboration with my customer. The customer gets to have a meaningful say in the offering and its delivery. The brand has to listen, respond and adapt quickly — sometimes radically. To engage the customer the brand has to truly embrace the concept of customer respect and collaboration, not look for a new way to exert leverage over the customer. That’s tough work. There’s no hack for it.
So if “customer hacking” evokes images of a cheap Halloween slasher movie, good. We need to stop playing the role of the stupid protagonist in those movies, worse yet the psychopaths!! The villain usually gets what they deserve in the end.