“Spray and pray is a derisive term for firing an automatic firearm towards an enemy in long bursts, without making an effort to line up each shot or burst of shots. This is especially prevalent amongst those without benefit of proper training.”

The preceding two sentences are from Wikipedia and if you are wondering whether I have decided to suddenly write about military strategy, let me reassure you that “spray and pray” is most frequently observed in the marketing world. And, as in military strategy, it is supreme amongst marketing executives without the benefit of proper training.

The most fundamental concept in marketing is STP or segmentation, targeting, and positioning. Marketing evolved around the turn of the last century, when sales organisations realised that their efforts would be much more effective, if they started with the assumption that customers differ in their needs which gives rise to the concept of segmentation. Once needs-based segments are defined, they select which segment to target, based on the fit between the product or service and the needs of the segments. Positioning is then associating the brand with the needs of the target segments. This implies that one cannot target everyone. When consulting, one of my more effective interventions was to ask, “Whom are you not targeting?” Marketers are challenged to answer this question with any degree of specificity.

Digital targeting

With the advent of digital and associated companies that have emerged out of it, most prominently Facebook and Google, a marketer can have lots of valuable insight into the customer. One can know the customer’s likes and dislikes, their friends, and where they are located. This information exhaust coming from the customers makes big data crucial to serving customers. It potentially allows more targeted and effective marketing communications. The problem is that the mindset of many marketers has remained unchanged from the earlier “spray and pray” mentality despite the ability for more targeted communications.

For proper data analytics based marketing, one needs to follow a certain discipline, where the marketer agrees to the following process:

  1. Test the hypothesized model on a small sample as this helps refine the model before the campaign goes out to the larger target market.
  2. When implementing the refined model on the larger population, agree to have a small holdout sample that acts as a control group in order to assess the effectiveness of the campaign.
  3. In selecting the larger population, agree to have the marketing communication only reach those prospects most likely to respond (i.e., the target market) and leave the others in the data set alone.
  4. Decide how often to follow up and hit the same audience who have not yet responded to the earlier communications campaign.

The problem is that marketers hate making choices and their usual answers to the above four steps are:

  • Let us not do a test as we have no time.
  • We don’t need a holdout sample, and instead, wish to hit everyone as it will get us a few additional sales.
  • We want to reach everyone that is in the database. Even if the marginal response rates are ridiculously low as we enlarge the target population, some of them will say yes.
  • If we have the ability, why not keep bombarding the prospects who are yet to respond.

Zero cost?

Beyond the lack of training and a proper appreciation that the data base is a valuable asset to be judiciously used, the problem is that digital provides marketers costless communication. In earlier days, with postal mail, there were mailing costs which forced marketers to confront the cost of non-response. With email and mobile, the cost of non-response by customer is either zero or minimal in the perception of the marketer. The idea is that if you get in front of the maximum number of people as many times as possible, the response rate is not important (these are typically less than 1%). Rather, marketers feel it is how many say yes in absolute numbers (this will always be non-zero). And, this explains why you get so much “junk” email.

But there are costs of non-response from the spray and pray approach. Customers start opting out, which makes the data base less valuable as the number of customers with active consent declines. Even if the “unsubscribe” option is not provided by the marketer, customers start to classify the sender as junk email. Beyond this, customers get very irritated and this cannot help the perception of the brand.

As marketing becomes more of a science, and let’s not deny that we also need poets, marketers will have to retool their own skills and bring greater analytic discipline to their marketing. The old joke that I used to deploy in my marketing classes will become less relevant hopefully. It went like this:

“Who goes into marketing?”
“Someone who realises at some stage in their life that they have grown up with no particular skills.”

Nirmalya Kumar is Member-Group Executive Council at Tata Sons and Visiting Professor of Marketing at London Business School. His Twitter handle is @ProfKumar. This article is written in his personal capacity.