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Relevance is Human-Driven, Not Just Data-Driven

The Influencers 31 Add to collection

​Humans seek relevance in every conversation, writes The Ninety-Niners' Simon Goodall

Relevance is Human-Driven, Not Just Data-Driven

$1 trillion is at risk for companies who fail to maintain customer relevance, according to Accenture. But what does it mean to be relevant? It’s much more than just data-driven personalisation. It is a profoundly human quality and the foundation of all good communication.

When we speak to another person, we look for ways to connect by making our words relevant to them.

We make it personal by scanning through what we know about an individual; what we think they like or dislike, how they responded to our terrible jokes in the past.

We engage empathy to predict how they might be feeling. We attempt to understand what they want to get out of our conversation. We adjust our tone or even change our accent to better connect.

We are sensitive to context. We know that there is a right time and place for certain conversations. We understand that context changes meaning; that the same word can be understood as a cry of joy or a scream of pain; a declaration of love or a gross insult.

We are responsive. We listen and observe others and adapt in real time. We seek shared experiences. We think about how other people will react to what we are saying.

Marketing isn’t a conversation, whatever the social media gurus tell you. Brands aren’t people. But understanding the role of relevance in human interactions helps us to build more relevant experiences for our customers. Similar rules apply; be personal, empathic, contextual and responsive.


"Create relevance, not awareness" - Steve Jobs

We should recognise that it isn’t easy. For humans, it is automatic. For brands, it requires a transformation of old processes and investment in new capabilities.

Personalising experiences requires not only the right technology infrastructure, but the processes to test and learn about individuals. However much you spend on martech, relevancy does not come out of the box.

Being empathetic to consumers who are all different and whose needs are constantly changing, means establishing real-time research that goes beyond the ‘what’ of behavioural data to probe the ‘why’ of emotions and motivations. And realising that what a bright young thing from Shoreditch feels is unlikely to be the same as a core customer from outside of our professional media bubble.

Understanding context means designing systems that are sensitive to time and place. And that can quickly learn how everything from new channels to cultural movements will affect how a message is received. 

And being responsive requires breaking down organisational silos, often formed around products or functions, to enable a seamless flow of customer data and understanding. It is, as one client put it to me, about democratising consumer insight.


One of the founding principles of The Ninety-Niners is to be data-driven, but customer-obsessed

In all this scaling up of infrastructure and processes, being relevant is also about remembering the humans behind the data. People are all different. They are different to you. They are different from each other. It is by embracing these differences, down to the individual level, we can get closer to the type of relevance we experience in human interactions. It’s why one of our founding principles when launching The Ninety-Niners was to be data-driven, but customer-obsessed.

We all have examples of relevance fails from brands. Some are personalisation fails, like being retargeted by the shoes you bought last month. Some are contextual fails, like the tone-deaf emails from travel companies at the start of lockdown. In the past couple of weeks, the UK has seen a big empathy fail, with the recirculation of this 2019 ad promoting retraining in cyber security.

A failure of empathy for artists and performers led to a failure of relevance for this UK Government ad. 

But the least obvious and most damaging is the attention fail. Most irrelevant communication does not result in frustration or offence. It is simply ignored. Of the 5,000+ advertising messages we see every day, we notice less than 1%. 

Irrelevance is noise. And while marketers might complain about the difficulty of ‘cutting through the clutter’, it’s a clutter of our own making. Nearly half of internet users now use ad-blockers, and the top two reasons according to Global WebIndex are ‘too many ads’ and ‘irrelevant ads’.

Here is one final way we can use the humanity of relevance as a guide. If people aren’t listening, most humans stop talking. 

If your brand can’t say something relevant, don’t say anything at all.


Simon Goodall is a founder of The Ninety-Niners; a customer experience consultancy on the side of the 99% of real consumers who experience brands, not the 1% who create them.

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The Ninety-Niners, Thu, 01 Apr 2021 17:17:00 GMT