The article originally published in Huffington Post

We are officially in the holiday season. A time that is full of merriment and cheer, but also a time when we can’t do virtually anything online, watch any TV show or open our email (or mailbox) without seeing a promotion for holiday shopping. As the holiday rush accounts for nearly 20 percent of annual sales for the retail industry, it’s critical for marketers to break through the noise to capture consumers’ attention — and wallets — a task that has become as difficult as selling ice to an eskimo. Not because he doesn’t need it, but because there are about a thousand other guys trying to sell him something.

What are brands supposed to do? Perhaps more importantly than opening on Thanksgiving Day at 6pm (or is it now 4pm??), marketers need to follow a mobile-first world’s take on GlenGarry Glen Ross’s “Always Be Closing”… and Always Be Engaging. Engaging with consumers is not following them around their digital lives with ads or sending out daily email blasts for free shipping. Ads are often ignored and free shipping is something that everyone expects in the holiday season — no longer generating the excitement it once did. Marketing engagement is about listening, learning, anticipating and providing unique experiences for each individual customer, at every touch point, when it’s relevant to their immediate situation and need.

Fueled by mobile, marketing has undergone a shift over the past few years, a shift that has accelerated as fast as a Porsche 911 in the past 12 months. Marketing is not about your brand or product or reaching the masses. It’s now about what your brand can do for an individual and engaging consistently.

The rules of mobile engagement are simple: win hearts, enter customers’ personal space and respect every relationship. Engagement must reflect immediacy and current context to truly understand and predict what their customers need and would appreciate in the moment. Context of course is a person’s location, environment, preferences and where they are on the customer journey. Every brand interaction also has its own immediacy requirements that have to be understood. If you ignore context and immediacy, you will end up bombarding consumers with a ton of push alerts and useless banner ads that are not only completely ignored but could also cause irreparable damage to the brand.

The biggest ally that brands have to engage with their customers is big data. But even as companies have heaps of data at their disposal, the lack of relevance with much of the marketing I am personally targeted with is astonishing. I got an email this week from the CEO of a large retailer of outdoor recreation and clothing products, thanking me for my continued patronage. I have not bought loafers (or anything else) from the store in over three years. I see this and immediately dismiss it because it’s not relevant. I understand the need for the marketing teams to send me something, so why not a “We miss you. See what we’ve rolled out since you’ve been gone” instead?

So how can brands better use their data to provide more relevant and engaging marketing this year? Here are a few ideas:

  • Predict their holiday shopping list. Can you determine the attributes of who they bought for last year and recommend gifts that are popular among people with similar traits. Instead of promoting your line of kitchen gadgets, inform loyal customer Myles, who purchases for a novice at the holidays when he himself is rather advanced, about recommendations on beginner products, cooking classes or recipes that would be perfect for the budding chef on his list.
  • Understand who is likely to host holiday events at their home, known by their social graph and items purchased. Use this information to help the stressed holiday hostess with tips, recipes, ideas to entertain the kiddos, playlists, etc.
  • Know how much they are likely to spend. Look at your customers’ spending habits throughout the year and past holiday seasons to determine the size of their holiday budget. Yes, we all would love to buy the 900 cashmere throw, but which of your customers are the ones who could afford this? Target only your big spenders with this, while more reasonable items to the rest of us.
  • Recognize habits. Understand customers’ habits and when they are likely to shop (i.e. Michelle is an early bird shopper, while Laurie waits for the very last minute). Does Joel pass by your store during your commute? Then don’t send a geo-targeted ad to them on a Monday when he is heading to work, but try to entice him one evening after work with personal gift recommendations.

So, I challenge marketers to approach this festive time not as selling season, but engagement season, and trust me, the sales will follow.